At NARA: A Different Approach To Civic Education

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David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

A resolution introduced in the House of Representatives in 1938 showed how difficult it was for some people to get over the repeal of Prohibition, which had been ended in 1933 by the Twenty-first Amendment.

The resolution proposed not to prohibit the sale of alcohol, as Prohibition had under the Eighteenth Amendment, but to prohibit drunkenness. The absurdity of this was cheekily pointed out in the handwritten note at the bottom, which proposed adding an equally far-fetched effort to abolish Saturday nights, when most of the offending drunkenness took place.

Needless to say, it is not part of our governing document today.

But it wasn’t the only proposed constitutional amendment among the 11,000-plus put forward in the Constitution’s 229-year history.

An amendment proposed in 1846 would have the President chosen by lot—pulling a ball representing a candidate out of a bowl. Another one would have the President chosen from among retiring senators.

After one member of Congress shot another in 1838, someone thought duelers ought not to be public officials, so an amendment was introduced denying duelers the right to hold public office.

These are just a few of the amendments that have been proposed for the Constitution over the years. They range from the absurd, silly, and ridiculous to those aimed at garnering publicity for its sponsor in an election campaign.

Of those proposed, only 27 made it into the Constitution. The latest one, the Twenty-seventh Amendment, dealing with the pay of members of Congress, took about 203 years—it was originally supposed to be part of the Bill of Rights.

All proposed amendments are part of a new exhibit that opened at the National Archives Museum in downtown Washington, DC, on March 11, 2016: “Amending America.” It will run through September 4, 2017, as part of our ongoing efforts to promote civic education through our various public programs.

A banner listing all proposed amendments will run from the Rotunda, where the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence are on permanent display, down a hallway and around a corner to the exhibit in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery.

There, you’ll be able to read some of these proposed amendments yourself.

There often were proposals, as there have been over the years, aimed at the Supreme Court, usually because of an unpopular major ruling—and there have been a number of them over the years.

One of them was an 1837 proposal that would allow Congress to reenact any of its legislation the Supreme Court found unconstitutional. Another would allow a plebiscite on certain decisions of the court. The court remains a frequent target.

Or the one proposed in 1915, before the United States was involved in World War I, that called for a lengthy process for a declaration of war. Not only would Congress have to approve, but also it would have to be ratified by a majority of voters in a majority of congressional districts, of which there are now 435. By contrast, Congress declared war on Japan in 1941 within hours of Franklin Roosevelt’s request.

Then there was the one that required everyone to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” all the time. And imagine what life would be like if the states had ratified a 1916 proposal that gave Congress the power to regulate divorce and provide for the custody of children.

The Founders may have seen these kinds of proposals coming, for they made it difficult to change the document they spent months writing in Philadelphia in 1787. First, a proposed amendment must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress—the same high bar it takes to remove an impeached President or override a Presidential veto. Then it must win approval of three-quarters of the state legislatures, which now is 38.

“Amending America” is the latest in our ongoing series of our outreach, educational, communications, and museum programs aimed at promoting a level of civic literacy high enough that citizens don’t lose touch with their nation’s own history.

It also provides an engaging way to understand how our Constitution is amended—how we “fix” our democracy now and then.

Read more about “Amending America” in NARA’s flagship publication Prologue.

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