With everything that’s going on in politics these days, it helps to remember the power that we have as individuals to make change, even to the Constitution! Examples of this are far too few, of course.
But there is one about the Constitution that stands out. And you’ve probably never heard it.
This story was originally performed as part of Pop Up Magazine.
The story begins in 1982. A 19-year-old sophomore named Gregory Watson was taking a government class at UT Austin. For the class, he had to write a paper about a governmental process. So he went to the library and started poring over books about the U.S. Constitution — one of his favorite topics.
“I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” Gregory says. “I pull out a book that has within it a chapter of amendments that Congress has sent to the state legislatures, but which not enough state legislatures approved in order to become part of the Constitution. And this one just jumped right out at me.”
That unratified amendment read as follows:
“No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect until an election of representatives shall have intervened.”
Basically, it means any raise Congress votes to give itself can’t take effect until after the next election, allowing voters to decide how they felt about that.
The amendment had been proposed almost 200 years earlier, in 1789. It was written by James Madison and was intended to be one of the very first amendments, right along with the Bill of Rights.
But it didn’t get passed by enough states at the time. You see, to ratify an amendment, you need three-quarters of states to approve it.
This amendment, though it was 200 years old, didn’t have a deadline.
Gregory was intrigued. He decided to write his paper about the amendment and argue that it was still alive and could be ratified. He got to work, being very meticulous about citations and fonts and everything. He turned it in to the teaching assistant for his class — and got it back with a C.
He didn’t know what to make of it. He was sure it was better than a C.
He appealed the grade to the professor, Sharon Waite.
“I kind of glanced at it, but I didn’t see anything that was particularly outstanding about it and I thought the C was probably fine,” she recalls.
Most people would have just taken the grade and left it at that. Gregory is not most people.
“So I thought right then and there, ‘I’m going to get that thing ratified.’”
Gregory needed 38 states to approve the amendment — three-quarters. Nine states had already approved it, most back in the 1790’s, so that meant he needed 29 more states for it to pass. He wrote letters to members of Congress to see if they knew anyone in their home states who might be willing to push the amendment in their state legislature. When he did get a response, it was generally negative. Some said the amendment was too old; some said they just didn’t know anyone who’d be willing to help. Mostly, he got no response at all.
But then, a senator from Maine named William Cohen did get back to him. Cohen passed it on to someone back home, who passed it on to someone else, who introduced it in the Maine Legislature. In 1983, lawmakers passed it.
“So I’m thinking my first success story; this can actually be done,” Gregory says.
Feeling emboldened, Gregory started writing to every state lawmaker he thought might be willing to help. He wrote dozens of letters. After a while, it started to work. Colorado passed the amendment in 1984. And then it picked up momentum. Five states in 1985. Three each in 1986, 1987 and 1988. Seven states in 1989 alone (including Texas).
By 1992, 35 states had passed the amendment. Only three more to go. After 10 years of letter writing, sweet talking and shaming, Gregory was within reach of his goal.
On May 5, 1992, both Alabama and Missouri passed it. And on May 7, as Gregory listened on the phone, the Michigan House of Representatives put the amendment over the top.
His quest was finally over: More than 200 years after it was written, the 27th Amendment was finally ratified.
“I did treat myself to a nice dinner at an expensive restaurant,” Gregory recalls.
(Though it did come to light later that, unbeknownst to anyone, Kentucky had ratified the amendment in 1792, which made Alabama the 38th state to ratify it.)
What an incredible story about our precious Constitution!
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