James Madison, Painting

James Madison of Virginia wrote the first draft of the Bill of Rights — the first 10 Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Amendments to the Constitution of the United States

July 21, 1788–Present Day

Amendments to the Constitution of the United States have been made 27 times since it was ratified on June 21, 1788. Article V of the Constitution gives the authority to amend the document and outlines the process for proposing and ratifying Amendments.

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Summary of the Amendments to the Constitution of the United States

Amendments to the United States Constitution can be made by following the process outlined in Article V of the Constitution. Since the Constitution was ratified on July 21, 1788, a total of 27 Amendments have been proposed and approved by three-fourths of the states. The first 10 Amendments are known as the Bill of Rights and protect individual liberties, rights, and freedoms. Another important subset of the 27 Amendments is the Reconstruction Amendments, which were passed after the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865.

Quick Facts About the Amendments to the Constitution (and some Fun Facts)

  • The first 10 Amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights.
  • The Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791.
  • The Civil War Amendments — also called the Reconstruction Amendments — are the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
  • The Voting Rights Amendments are the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments.
  • Fun Fact — It took 202 years, 7 months, and 10 days for the 27th Amendment to be ratified.
  • Fun Fact — Prohibition was established with the 18th Amendment and repealed with the  21st Amendment.
Constitutional Convention, Signing the Constitution, Christy
This painting by Howard Chandler Christy depicts the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Image Source: Wikipedia.

History of the Amendments to the Constitution of the United States

The Constitution of the United States is a document that serves as the supreme law of the nation and no law can be passed that contradicts its principles. However, it is a “living” document that can be changed — or amended — through a process that is found within the document itself, in Article V. 

The Articles of Confederation established a clear “league of friendship” between the states and gave significant power to the Congress of the Confederation. However, Congress was unable to raise money through taxes to pay for anything. Further, all decisions required a unanimous vote of the states, which was difficult to achieve due to sectional interests.

A movement to update the Articles and redesign the government started. In May 1787, 12 of the 13 states send delegates to Philadelphia to discuss changes. George Washington was chosen to preside over the meetings. Instead of updating the Articles, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention replaced the Articles with something entirely new — the Constitution of the United States. 

George Washington, Portrait, Stuart
George Washington was chosen to preside over the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Despite the development of the Constitution, there was disagreement. The people who favored the Constitution became known as Federalists. Those who disagreed, or even opposed it, were called Anti-Federalists. Anti-Federalists argued the Constitution failed to provide details regarding basic civil rights — a Bill of Rights — while Federalists argued 

In the following months, each state held its own Constitutional Convention and debated whether or not to approve the new government. Nine of the 13 states needed to vote in favor — or ratify — the Constitution in order for it to become the law of the land.

From October 1787 to August 1788, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay — all Founding Fathers — and all Federalists — wrote a series of essays in support of the Constitution. The essays, known as the Federalist Papers, were printed in the newspapers. They helped explain the Constitution, along with the thought process and purpose behind each article. In regard to the Bill of Rights, Federalist No. 84 argued the people did not surrender any rights by adopting the Constitution.

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On December 7, 1787, Delaware ratified the Constitution. However, in some states, approval hinged on the Bill of Rights. Finally, a compromise was agreed to — the Massachusetts Compromise — when four states agreed to ratify the Constitution as long as they could send recommendations for amendments to Congress.  

New Hampshire Became the ninth state to ratify, on June 21, 1788. Afterward, the Confederation Congress set March 9, 1789, as the day the nation would start operating under the Constitution. By March 9, the only state that had not ratified was Rhode Island, and it approved the Constitution on May 29, 1790.

On June 8, 1789, during the first session of Congress, James Madison proposed a series of amendments to the House of Representatives. Madison’s proposals eventually became the Bill of Rights — the first 10 Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights is based on many things, including the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the English Bill of Rights, and the Magna Carta.

Over time, 17 more amendments have been made to the Constitution. Of the 27 amendments that have been ratified, 25 of them are functioning. The 18th Amendment — for Prohibition — was repealed by the 21st Amendment.

When amendments are ratified, they are added at the end of the Constitution — after the original articles and previous amendments. This allows the original Constitution to remain intact and makes it a living document.

The 27 Amendments to the Constitution In Order

The 27 Amendments to the United States Constitution are listed below, in order. There is a section for each Amendment that includes the full text of the Amendment and a brief explanation of what it means.

1st Amendment — Freedom of Speech, Press, Assembly, and Petition

What does First Amendment say? 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What does it mean? 

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The First Amendment means Congress cannot make laws that establish religion or prohibit the free exercise of religion. It guarantees freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and the right to petition the government.

2nd Amendment — The Right to Bear Arms

What does the Second Amendment say? 

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

What does it mean? 

The Second Amendment means the government must allow private citizens the to own weapons and bear arms. It also means militia is vital to security and freedom.

3rd Amendment — Quartering of Soldiers

What does the Third Amendment Say? 

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

What does it mean? 

The Third Amendment means the government cannot use private homes to house soldiers, without the approval of the owner.

4th Amendment — Search and Seizure

What does the Fourth Amendment say? 

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

What does it mean? 

The Fourth Amendment means the government cannot perform unauthorized searches and seizures of private property. The government must acquire a search warrant first, which must be issued by a judge. The search warrant must provide details about where the search will be conducted and what is being searched for.

5th Amendment — Grand Jury, Double Jeopardy, Self Incrimination, Due Process, Takings

What does the Fifth Amendment say? 

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No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

What does it mean? 

The Fifth Amendment means citizens who have been accused of a crime have a right to a grand jury, are protected from double jeopardy, and cannot be forced to testify against themselves. Further, citizens cannot lose personal possessions without due process and private property cannot be taken without proper compensation — the concept of eminent domain.

6th Amendment — Right to Trial by Jury, Witnesses, Counsel

What does the Sixth Amendment say? 

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

What does it mean? 

The Sixth Amendment means the accused has a right to a fair, speedy trial, by a jury of peers — in the same area the crime was committed. The accused has a right to confront witnesses, and to have witnesses on their behalf. The accused also has a right to a lawyer.

7th Amendment — Jury Trial in Civil Lawsuits

What does the Seventh Amendment say? 

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

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What does it mean? 

The Seventh Amendment means the right to a trial by a jury of peers extends to civil lawsuits in federal courts.

8th Amendment — Excessive Fines and Punishment

What does the Eighth Amendment say? 

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

What does it mean? 

The Eighth Amendment means citizens are protected against excessive punishments.

9th Amendment — Unspecified Rights Are Retained by the People

What does the Ninth Amendment say? 

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

What does it mean? 

The Ninth Amendment means the rights of the citizens are not limited to the rights mentioned in the Constitution.

10th Amendment — Rights of the States or People

What does the Tenth Amendment say? 

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

What does it mean? 

The Tenth Amendment says the powers of the Federal Government are listed in the Constitution. Anything not listed in the Constitution belongs to the states or the people. Enumerated means to “mention one by one.”

11th Amendment — Law Suits Against States

What does the Eleventh Amendment say? 

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

What does it mean? 

The Eleventh Amendment means that federal courts cannot hear certain lawsuits against states or other countries.

12th Amendment — Election of the President and Vice President

What does the Twelfth Amendment say? 

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The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; — the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; — The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. [And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. –]* The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

What does it mean? 

The Twelfth Amendment means the person who wins the most Electoral Votes wins the Presidency, and the person with the second most votes is Vice President.

13th Amendment — Abolition of Slavery

What does the Thirteenth Amendment say? 

Section 1. 

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. 

Section 2. 

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

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What does it mean? 

The Thirteenth Amendment means that slavery is illegal in the United States, and can only be used as punishment when someone has been convicted of a crime.

Additional Resources for the 13th Amendment on American History Central

14th Amendment — Rights of Citizenship, Equal Protection, Apportionment, Civil War Debt

What does the Fourteenth Amendment say?

Section 1.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2.

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age,* and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3.

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No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4.

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5.

The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

What does it mean? 

The Fourteenth Amendment means citizens of the United States — people born in the United States or become naturalized — are guaranteed equal protection under the law. This included formerly enslaved people who were freed after the Civil War.

Additional Resources for the 14th Amendment on American History Central

15th Amendment — Right to Vote Cannot be Denied Based on Race

What does the Fifteenth Amendment say? 

Section 1.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude–

Section 2.

The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

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What does it mean?

The Fifteenth Amendment means the right to vote cannot be denied based on race or religion and gave African-American men the right to vote.

Additional Resources for the 15th Amendment on American History Central

16th Amendment — Federal Income Tax

What does the Sixteenth Amendment say? 

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

What does it mean? 

The Sixteenth Amendment means the government has the right to levy an income tax on all citizens.

17th Amendment — Senators Elected by Popular Vote

What does the Seventeenth Amendment say? 

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

What does it mean? 

The Seventeeth Amendment means United States Senators are elected by the popular vote of the citizens of the state, not the state legislature.

18th Amendment — Prohibition of Intoxicating Liquors

What does the Eighteenth Amendment say? 

Section 1.

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After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2.

The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

What does it mean? 

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The Eighteenth Amendment means alcohol cannot be made, transported, or sold in the United States.

19th Amendment — Right to Vote Cannot be Denied Based on Gender

What does the Nineteenth Amendment say? 

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

What does it mean? 

The Nineteenth Amendment means women have the right to vote.

20th Amendment — Presidential Term and Succession, Assembly of Congress

What does the Twentieth Amendment say? 

Section 1.

The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

Section 2.

The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

Section 3.

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If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

Section 4.

The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.

Section 5.

Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.

Section 6.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.

What does it mean? 

The Twentieth Amendment means there are specific dates when the offices of the President, Vice President, and Congressmen start and end.

21st Amendment — Repeal of the 18th Amendment

What does the Twenty-First Amendment say? 

Section 1.

The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2.

The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or Possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3.

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This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

What does it mean? 

The Twenty-First Amendment means the 18th Amendment is repealed. Alcohol can be made, transported, and sold in the United States.

22nd Amendment — Term Limits on Office of the President

What does the Twenty-Second Amendment say? 

Section 1.

No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

Section 2.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.

What does it mean? 

The Twenty-Second Amendment means there are term limits for the office of President.

23rd Amendment — Representation for Washington, D.C.

What does the Twenty-Third Amendment say? 

Section 1.

The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct:

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A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

Section 2.

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

What does it mean? 

The Twenty-Third Amendment means citizens of Washington, D.C. can vote for presidential electors.

24th Amendment — Abolition of Poll Taxes

What does the Twenty-Fourth Amendment say?

Section 1.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax.

Section 2.

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

What does it mean? 

The Twenty-Fourth Amendment means that states are not allowed to charge citizens a poll tax — or fee — to vote.

25th Amendment — Succession of Office of President

What does the Twenty-Fifth Amendment say? 

Section 1.

In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.

Section 2.

Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.

Section 3.

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Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Section 4.

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

What does it mean? 

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The Twenty-Fifth Amendment means there is a process to follow in case the office of the President or Vice President.

26th Amendment — Voting Rights at Age of 18

What does the Twenty-Sixth Amendment say? 

Section 1.

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Section 2.

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

What does it mean? 

The Twenty-Sixth Amendment means citizens have the right to vote once they have reached the age of 18.

27th Amendment — Congressional Compensation

What does the Twenty-Seventh Amendment say? 

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.

What does it mean? 

The Twenty-Seventh Amendment means there is a specific time when the members of Congress can vote to give themselves a pay raise.

The Process to Amend the United States Constitution

The Constitution of the United States is a document that serves as the supreme law of the nation. It was ratified on June 21, 1788, and replaced the Articles of Confederation. On September 13, 1788, the Confederation Congress passed an ordinance that set dates for choosing electors, electing the President, and transitioning to the new government. 

The original Constitution contains seven articles that lay out the framework of the government. Article V lays out and authorizes the process for making changes to — or amending — the Constitution. In order to change the Constitution, Amendments must be:

  1. Proposed by Congress or by a Constitutional Convention.
  2. Approved by at least three-fourths of the states.
  3. Announced by the Archivist of the United States.

Authorization of Amendments to the Constitution

The authorization to change the Constitution is found in Article V:

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“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”

Process to Propose Amendments to the Constitution

Article V of the Constitution provides two methods for proposing amendments to the Constitution. 

  1. Congress can propose an amendment to the Constitution by passing a bill in both houses, by a vote of two-thirds.
  2. A constitutional convention can be convened by a vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures. Once the convention convenes, it can propose amendments.

Once a proposal is approved, it must be sent to the states for approval. When proposed amendments are sent to the states, the proposal usually carries an expiration date.

Process to Ratify and Approve Amendments to the Constitution

In order for a proposed amendment to be ratified, three-fourths of the states must vote in favor of it. When the number of states needed for ratification is reached, the Archivist of the United States proclaims the proposal as a new amendment to the Constitution. After that, it is published in the Federal Register and then in the United States Statutes-at-Large.

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Short History of the Transition from the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution

The American Revolutionary War officially ended in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed. The United States achieved the independence from Great Britain that it had fought for, but was still a young nation, with a weak central government under the Articles of Confederation. The government was weak under the articles for several reasons. For example, they did not provide the Confederation Congress with the authority to enforce the Treaty of Paris, regulate interstate commerce, or respond to internal uprisings.

Treaty of Paris 1783, Painting
This painting by Benjamin West depicts the American delegation at the Treaty of Paris. From left to right are John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. The British delegation refused to pose, and the painting was never completed.

Potomac Company

In 1784, George Washington started to develop a plan to help merchants on the east coast could establish trade with settlers on the western frontier. He did not want to see them doing business with any foreign nations that had a presence in the west, including Great Britain and Spain. The following year, Washington helped establish the Potomac Company, which intended to build a series of canals and locks to connect the Potomac River with the James River and Ohio River.

Mount Vernon Conference

By 1785, Virginia and Maryland realized they needed to have some sort of agreement over the usage and jurisdiction of the Potomac River, which is a shared waterway between the two states. Delegates from both states were supposed to convene in Alexandria, Virginia on March 21. However, the location of the meeting was changed to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. Some of the prominent participants at the Mount Vernon Conference were Samuel Chase, Thomas Stone, George Mason, and James Madison.

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Mount Vernon Compact

The conference lasted from March 25 to March 28, and the outcome was the Mount Vernon Compact — also known as the Compact of 1785. The compact set up regulations that covered a variety of things, including tolls, fishing rights, and debt collection.

Success of the Mount Vernon Conference Leads to the Annapolis Convention

Moving forward, the Mount Vernon Conference served as the model for states to follow when negotiating with each other. It also led James Madison to suggest the states should continue to discuss issues between the states, especially those dealing with commerce. Madison introduced a proposal to the Virginia General Assembly that suggested each state send commissions to a conference to discuss interstate issues. Maryland agreed to the conference on January 21, 1786. After that, Virginia invited the other 11 states to a convention, which was set to be held in Annapolis, Maryland on September 11, 1786.

Annapolis Convention

Five states send delegates to Annapolis, which was held from September 11 to September 14, 1786. The states that sent delegates were:

  1. New York — Egbert Benson, Alexander Hamilton
  2. New Jersey — Abraham Clark, William Houston, James Schureman
  3. Pennsylvania — Tench Coxe
  4. Delaware — George Read, John Dickinson, Richard Bassett
  5. Virginia — Edmund Randolph, James Madison, St. George Tucker

The meetings were held at Mann’s Tavern, and were officially called “Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government.” The plan was to discuss protectionist trade laws between the states, but the federal government did not have the power to regulate trade under the Articles of Confederation. During the course of the proceedings, it became clear that another meeting, with a much broader scope, was going to be needed. The convention produced a report that was sent to Congress that suggested another convention.

Shays’ Rebellion

In August 1786, before the Annapolis Convention even began, Shays’ Rebellion started. The insurrection was led by Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran. Shays and the insurgents, mostly poor farmers, were protesting crippling economic policies in Massachusetts that caused many farm foreclosures and the imprisonment of debtors. 

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Shays’ followers, who called themselves Regulators, marched on several Massachusetts courthouses in 1786 to halt foreclosure proceedings and the imprisonment of debtors. Shays’ Rebellion reached its climax on January 25, 1787, when the Massachusetts militia defeated Shays and his followers as they attempted to capture a federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts. The insurgency ended for the most part on February 3, 1787, when the remainder of Shays’ followers were surprised by militia forces and took advantage of an offer of a general amnesty. 

Although the rebellion was put down, Shays’ Rebellion strengthened the argument that the central government was too weak. The inability of the government to manage the finances of the young nation contributed to the uprising, and then its inability to put it down showed further weakness.

Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris at the time, wrote a letter to James Madison on January 30, 1787. Jefferson discussed Shays’ Rebellion and made the following observation — and his famous quote — on how the incident could contribute to the “sound health” of the nation’s government.

“Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccesful rebellions indeed generally establish the incroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medecine necessary for the sound health of government.”

Philadelphia Convention of 1787

On May 14, 1787, 55 delegates from 12 states met in Philadelphia to debate revisions to the Articles of Confederation. However, many delegates, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, saw an opportunity to create an entirely new government. George Washington was chosen to preside over the meetings, which lasted until September 17. Over the course of 100 days, the delegates debated, presented plans, and made compromises that led to the creation of the United States Constitution. 

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On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was adopted and signed by 39 delegates, including Benjamin Franklin. Legend has it that as Franklin walked out of Carpenter’s Hall, someone asked, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Benjamin Franklin, Portrait, Duplessis
This portrait of Benjamin Franklin was painted by Joseph Siffred Duplessis. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Debate on the Constitution

Article VII of the Constitution stated it would become the law of the land when it was ratified by 9 of the 13 states. The Constitution was sent to each state legislature and each of them reviewed it and decided whether to approve it or not.

Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut approved it over the course of the next few months. However, some states, such as Massachusetts had concerns over the broad powers of the strong, centralized government and the lack of individual rights, which were found in the English Bill of Rights.

Compromises and Proposed Amendments

In Massachusetts, there was considerable opposition to the Constitution. However, a compromise was reached when Samuel Adams and John Hancock agreed to support the Constitution — but only if amendments could be proposed. Massachusetts proposed several amendments, including some that became part of the 5th Amendment and the 10th Amendment. Virginia and New York followed along with Massachusetts and agreed to ratify as long as amendments could be proposed.

Ratification of the Constitution

Maryland and South Carolina ratified after Massachusetts. Then, on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the 9th state to ratify the Constitution. Afterward, it was agreed the new government would begin operating under the Constitution on March 4, 1789.

The First 10 Amendments

The 1st United States Congress met in Federal Hall in New York City. Among the first members of the House of Representatives was James Madison, who had been elected in part because he promised to introduce a series of amendments that would form a bill of rights for citizens. 

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The amendments proposed by Madison were inspired by the Magna Carta of 1215, the English Bill of Rights, and many of the infringements on rights made by British laws, including the Coercive Acts. He leaned heavily on the existing state constitutions and other key documents, including George Mason’s “Virginia Declaration of Rights.”

Both Houses of Congress made changes to Madison’s original proposal and eventually, 12 articles were considered. On September 25, 1789, they were approved by a joint resolution of Congress and forwarded to the 14 states on September 28.

10 of the 12 articles were approved by the states and became the first 10 Amendments to the United States Constitution — The Bill of Rights.

Significance of the 27 Amendments

The 27 Amendments to the Constitution are important to the history of the United States because they have helped make it the world’s longest-surviving written charter of government. The Constitution was written in 1787, ratified in 1788, and went into effect in 1789. For more than centuries, it has stood as the basis of law and order in the United States because the framers created a successful balance between the government and the people. It is a document that can be changed and updated, without losing sight of the principles it was based on. Those principles were borne out of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. They came from the brilliant minds of men and women who understood the long-term value of a government framework that could be updated and amended — so it could truly be a government for all people.

Amendments for AP US History (APUSH)

This section provides resources for students who are preparing for the AP United States History Exam.

Definition of Amendments for APUSH

A Constitutional Amendment in United States history is an update or addition to the United States Constitution. Amendments are authorized by Article V of the Constitution. Article V also defines the process for proposing and ratifying Amendments. Amendments are added at the end, so it is a living document.

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Frequently Asked Questions About the Amendments to the Constitution

How many Amendments does the Constitution have?

The United States Constitution has 27 Amendments that have been proposed, ratified, and announced. The first 10 Amendments are known as the Bill of Rights. The other 17 Amendments deal with many issues, including voting rights, the transition of office, and term limits. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment.

Why do some sources say there are 33 Amendments to the Constitution?

Some sources say there are 33 Amendments because that is how many have been proposed by Congress. 27 Amendments have been proposed, ratified, and announced. There are 6 Amendments that were proposed and either failed or have not been ratified. 4 Amendments have not been ratified. 2 Amendments failed.

Who wrote the Bill of Rights?

James Madison of Virginia wrote the first draft of the Bill of Rights. Although Madison’s original draft was modified by both Houses of Congress, placed specific limitations on the government and explicitly guaranteed the rights of citizens. Madison’s changes were presented as a list of Amendments to follow Article VII.

Who wrote the 14th Amendment?

Congressman John A. Bingham wrote the 14th Amendment. He is sometimes referred to as the “James Madison of the 14th Amendment.” Bingham was a moderate Republican and abolitionist from the state of Ohio. The Amendment guaranteed the Bill of Rights applied to Americans freed from slavery after the Civil War.

Why was the 18th Amendment abolished?

The 18th Amendment was abolished because it failed for various reasons. Americans still wanted alcohol, which increased the bootlegging industry, speakeasies, and violence. Loopholes in the Volstead Act led to the corruption of public officials. There was no measurable benefit to the act in terms of worker productivity or absenteeism.

APUSH Review: Important Amendments

This video covers the details about important Amendments students need to know about for the AP US History exam.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Amendments to the Constitution of the United States
  • Coverage July 21, 1788–Present Day
  • Author
  • Keywords United States Constitution, Article V, Amendments, Bill of Rights, Reconstruction Amendments, Voting Rights Amendments
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date October 1, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update September 6, 2022