The amending powers of the United States Constitution are laid out in Article V of the document. Whether through Congress or a convention, Article V ensures that the right of the people and the states to overrule the government is enshrined into fundamental law. Endurance and flexibility are the Constitution's greatest strengths, and by limiting and defining government while guaranteeing certain rights to the people, its 27 amendments have shaped and strengthened the America we know today.
The purpose of the Constitution is to define and limit the role of the federal government and ensure certain "inalienable rights" to the people. Over time, the Constitution has required adjustments so the nation could conform to changing values while preserving the document's original intent. Three different methods have altered the Constitution. Amendments directly change the wording of the Constitution, while federal legislation and regulation limit and expand it, or the United States Supreme Court makes changes through interpretation.
Intentionally designed to resist whimsical changes while remaining flexible, the Constitution can be amended in two ways. Congress may propose amendments when two-thirds of both houses approve it. Alternatively, if two-thirds of the legislatures of the states apply for it, a convention for proposing amendments "shall" be called. In either case, any amendment requires the ratification of three-quarters of the states. There has never been an Article V convention. Two caveats added to Article V were that no amendment could be added that would interfere with slavery until the year 1808, and no amendments could deprive any state of equal representation in the Senate.
The Founders and the Amendment Power
When the Constitution's framers met in Philadelphia in 1787, they relied primarily on a framework called the Virginia Plan. A critical component of that plan was the ability to amend the new Constitution. The United States had just achieved independence from Great Britain and did not want tyranny of a federal government to supplant a tyrannical king. Adding the means for the states to hold a convention to amend the Constitution gave the citizens a means to overcome an out-of-control federal government.
Amendments in Action
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, many of the delegates were unhappy the document made no guarantee of rights they viewed as fundamentally important. That explains the almost immediate addition to the Constitution of the first 10 amendments, also known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees critical freedoms, like those of a free press, government not establishing any religion or prohibiting its free exercise, personal privacy, the right to bear arms and the right to a speedy trial by jury. Later amendments, among other things, ended slavery, established the equal rights and due process clauses, ensured a woman's right to vote, limited presidential terms and established the federal income tax.
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