Every time you turn on cable news, there's a good chance someone is yelling about the need for an amendment to the United States Constitution. You're probably familiar with some of the more recent attempts, including proposals to require a balanced federal budget, define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, guarantee equal rights for women, ban flag desecration and reform the Electoral College. What you might not know is there have actually been more than 11,000 proposed constitutional amendments introduced in or recommended to Congress since the country's founding document was enacted in 1789 [source: Bernstein and Agel]. Like those listed above, many of them were politically controversial. Others, however, were just plain weird.
If it's been a while since your last civics class, here's a quick refresher on the constitutional amendment process. A two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, or a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of the state legislatures, is required to formally propose an amendment. Then the amendment must be ratified by three-fourths (38) of the 50 states [source: National Archives]. The founding fathers designed the process to be difficult but not impossible, which is why, of the thousands of proposed amendments, only 27 became enshrined in the Constitution. Considering our list of some of the weird things politicians and activists proposed over the years, that's probably a good thing.
Titles of Nobility Amendment, 1810
In 1810 Maryland Sen. Philip Reed introduced the Titles of Nobility Amendment, which would have revoked citizenship from any American who accepted a title of nobility from a foreign country. You might be wondering, "What's the big deal?" — and you wouldn't be alone.
For many years even historians couldn't figure out the motivations behind the amendment. We now know, however, that the proposal likely stemmed from the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte's brother married an American: Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore, Maryland. Some members of Congress feared that Patterson and her son would claim aristocratic status from France, a country that had a rocky relationship with the United States at the time.
Things looked good for the amendment on May 1, 1810, when the Senate approved it by a vote of 19 to 5 and the House gave it the nod by an 87 to 3 margin. But it was never ratified by three-fourths of the states, so it remains in limbo, unlikely to ever be approved [source: Vile]. That's good news for Americans like Steven Spielberg, George H.W. Bush and Kevin Spacey, who are all honorary British knights.
Amendment to Outlaw Dueling, 1828
To our modern sensibilities, dueling seems ridiculous. Why would two otherwise sane adults sort out a disagreement by engaging in combat with swords or guns? There was a time, however, when dueling was such a problem that Congress considered amending the Constitution in order to ban it.
Dueling has a surprisingly extensive history in 18th and 19th century America. Even the most casual fans of history (or musicals) are probably aware of the 1804 duel in which Aaron Burr famously shot Alexander Hamilton over insults hurled during Burr's race for New York governor. But there were others.
President Andrew Jackson had participated in numerous duels before his election in 1828, which, coincidentally, was the same year an amendment was proposed to ban the practice. It failed, and politicians continued to duel with surprisingly few consequences. In 1838 Whig congressman William Graves killed Democratic foe Jonathan Cilley in a duel, and though Congress formally scolded Graves, they refused to expel him.
Eventually, state laws and common sense prevailed, so now shooting someone over a disagreement is generally frowned upon [source: Vile].
Eliminating the Presidency, 1860
In 1860, Virginia's Democratic Rep. Albert Jenkins introduced an amendment to eliminate the presidency and instead elect two people to share executive power. While that may seem weird to us now, the idea of a singular presidency was actually quite controversial even before the Constitution was put to paper. As you might imagine, American colonists who'd just thrown off one king weren't too excited about giving another a place in their new government. But thanks to defenders like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the idea of a lone executive ended up in the Constitution and has remained the law of the land ever since.
So why did Jenkins bring it up again some 80 years later? Slavery. See, with the election of Abraham Lincoln, southerners started to worry that a northern president might not have their best interests at heart, particularly when it came to slavery. A dual executive, however, would almost certainly give someone from the South a voice in the nation's highest office.
The idea popped up again in 1878, this time from a northerner. Ohio Rep. Milton Southard felt that the president was becoming too much like a king and, in response, he proposed a three-part executive council consisting of representatives from the eastern and middle, western, and southern regions. His plan, of course, went nowhere, but that hasn't stopped people from calling the president a king even to this day [source: Vile].
Making Slavery Legal ... Forever, 1861
The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. But the amendment that ended forced labor very nearly became the amendment that made it legal forever. How can this be?
By the end of 1860, the United States was barely holding together. Issues of slavery and states' rights led southern legislatures to discuss secession, a threat South Carolina made good on in December of that year. That's when New York Sen. William Seward and his colleague in the House, Thomas Corwin of Ohio, introduced what became known as the Corwin Amendment. Not only did it propose to give states the right to regulate "domestic institutions" like slavery, but it promised to keep Congress from ever abolishing it. And if that wasn't enough, the Corwin Amendment also nixed the possibility that another constitutional amendment could ever undo it.
The idea of the amendment was to give southern states, and border states in the North, a reason to stay in the Union. It was a plan that even enjoyed support from the Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln. That's right — the president known for freeing the slaves almost ensured their bondage for generations. And frighteningly, it almost worked: The Corwin Amendment passed both the House and Senate and was ratified by three states before the process was interrupted by the Civil War [source: Albert].
Give "Spinsters and Widows" the Right to Vote, 1888
Our current political climate is flush with talk of women's rights and what some call a "war on women." But few legislative acts have ever been as condescending to women as the amendment submitted by Illinois Rep. William E. Mason to give property-owning "widows and spinsters" the right to vote [source: U.S. House of Representatives].
To be fair, Mason may have thought he was helping. After all, it had been four decades since Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other suffragists gathered at Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss women's rights — including their desire for the right to vote — and little progress had been made on the issue. It would be an additional three decades before the 19th Amendment gave all women the right to vote, so at least this proposal would allow some women to vote, right? [source: History.com staff]
Well, that's true, but the real problem with this amendment was the underlying logic. In the all-male minds of Congress, only "widows and spinsters" needed the right to vote because married women had their husbands to represent their interests (insert eye roll here). That reasoning didn't sit well with Stanton who half-jokingly testified before Congress that these single women were "industrious, common-sense women ... who love their country (having no husband to love) better than themselves." The amendment never gained much traction, maybe because the congressmen were afraid of what their wives would say [source: U.S. National Archives].
Rename the United States of America to the United States of Earth, 1893
File this amendment under "jumping the gun," "putting the cart before the horse" or "counting your chickens before they hatch." In 1893, Wisconsin Rep. Lucas Miller figured eventually every nation in the world would be admitted as part of the United States, so we might as well go ahead and rename the country the "United States of Earth." But how, you may ask, would legislative representatives spread across such a vast territory conduct the business of government? Don't worry, he had the answer. They'd "vote by electricity," of course (whatever that means) [source: Special to The New York Times].
Amazingly, that was only the beginning of the amendment's weird proposals. Among its other questionable ideas was to abolish the Army and Navy and instead rely on state militias for defense. It also called for all laws to have the continuous support of a majority of the people they affect, which, while noble in theory, would be difficult in practice. In Miller's defense, the amendment was submitted "by request" (on behalf of someone else), so he may not actually be to blame for some of stranger proposals [source: Musmanno].
Abolish the United States Senate, 1911
Sometimes, in order to get what you want, you have to act a little crazy. That's exactly the strategy employed by Wisconsin Rep. Victor Berger in April 1911, when he introduced a resolution to abolish the Senate. Not only was it a radical proposal, but it seemed highly unlikely to succeed considering two-thirds of the very body it sought to eliminate would have to vote for the amendment in order to send it to the states for ratification.
When Berger submitted his zany idea, Congress was in the midst of debating another amendment that was pretty revolutionary in its own right. It was a proposal to change the way senators were elected. At that time, state legislatures made this choice, but the new amendment would allow the American people to decide through direct elections. This change, supporters hoped, would remove the forces of corruption, money and influence from the Senate.
The Senate, however, was in no rush to formally endorse the idea of direct elections, which they had managed to ignore since it was first proposed in 1826. Berger figured a competing amendment to abolish the chamber altogether might be just the encouragement his colleagues needed to take action. Perhaps in part because of Berger's efforts, the Senate finally approved the direct popular vote proposal in May 1912, and it eventually became the 17th Amendment [sources: United States Senate, Vile].
Limit Wealth to $1 Million, 1933
It's hard to imagine it today, but in the early 20th century, proposals to cap personal wealth and income were fairly common — particularly among congressmen who considered themselves socialists. With the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, however, these lawmakers had better tools for addressing income inequality. That amendment gave the federal government the right to impose an income tax, so legislators could simply raise taxes on the wealthy in an effort to even out incomes.
Interest in wealth and income caps returned during the Great Depression, when unemployment skyrocketed and the gap between the rich and the poor became alarmingly wide. That's when Washington Rep. Wesley Lloyd introduced an amendment to cap annual incomes at $1 million. His colleague, Rep. John Snyder of Pennsylvania, followed Lloyd's proposal with an amendment of his own that would limit investment income.
Those amendments never got enough support to move them out of Congress, but who knows — given the widening gap between the rich and poor today, we could very well see similar proposals again [source: Vile].
Outlaw Drunkenness, 1938
On Dec. 5, 1933, Americans raised a collective glass to the end of Prohibition, a period in which the production, transportation and sale of alcohol were banned. It all started in 1919 with the passage of the 18th Amendment, a law written by Texas Sen. Morris Sheppard on behalf of those who opposed alcohol for reasons of health and morality. While the amendment succeeded in reducing alcohol consumption, the black market it created led to a dramatic increase in organized crime and violence. After 14 dry years, thirsty state legislatures repealed Prohibition with the 21st Amendment in 1933. It was ratified in just 10 months, a record for the time.
Not everyone was feeling the warm glow, though. Between 1935 and 1938, Prohibition author Morris Sheppard, a Democratic senator from Texas, introduced at least five resolutions to repeal the 21st Amendment. Sheppard wasn't having any luck, so his colleague, Oklahoma Rep. Gomer Smith, tried a different tactic: outlawing drunkenness [source: Vile].
The ridiculousness of this proposal, particularly given the recent failure of Prohibition, led an unidentified author to add some additional sections to a draft located in the House Judiciary Committee's papers at the National Archives. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the anonymous jokester suggested Congress could be empowered to change human nature or perhaps abolish Saturday night as well [source: House Judiciary Committee].
Make Senators and Representatives Wait a Term Until They Get a Raise, 1992
Our constitutional scholars out there are probably screaming at their computer screens, "That's not a failed constitutional amendment!" And they would be right. The proposal to make Congress wait a term after they vote on a pay raise before it takes effect was ratified by the requisite number of states in 1992 and enshrined in the Constitution as the 27th Amendment. But it was a failed amendment for a very, very long time, and the story about how it eventually was ratified makes it one of the weirder proposals to move through the constitutional gauntlet.
The first time this idea was proposed was actually way back in 1789, when James Madison included it in a package of 12 amendments intended to form the original Bill of Rights. It was only ratified by seven states, though, short of the necessary three-fourths majority. Periodically over the next two centuries, Congress would give themselves a pay raise, prompting a congressman to reintroduce the amendment and another state to ratify it: Ohio in 1873 and Wyoming in 1978. Still far short of the necessary states, the amendment got a boost from an unexpected advocate: An undergraduate student at the University of Texas.
The student, Gregory Wilson, wrote a paper about the amendment in 1982, arguing that it could still be ratified. His professor called it "unrealistic" and gave him a C on his paper, so Wilson set out to prove him wrong. He spent $5,000 of his own money to convince state legislatures to ratify the amendment, and, incredibly, he succeeded. The 203-year ratification timeline is by far the longest of any amendment [source: Vile].
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Author's Note: 10 Weirdest Failed Constitutional Amendments
When people throw around an idea for a constitutional amendment for this or a constitutional amendment for that, they don't always realize what a high bar they have to clear. It's really hard to get one passed — which is probably why only 27 have ever been tacked on to our founding document. But, after researching some of the 11,000-plus amendments that have been proposed, believe me when I tell you that's probably a good thing.
More Great Links
- Albert, Richard. "The 'Ghost Amendment' That Haunts Lincoln's Legacy." Cognoscenti. Feb. 18, 2013. (Aug. 16, 2016) http://cognoscenti.legacy.wbur.org/2013/02/18/the-other-13th-richard-albert
- Bernstein, Richard B. and Jerome Agel. "Amending America: If We Love the Constitution So Much, Why Do We Keep Trying to Change It." University Press of Kansas. 1995. https://books.google.com/books/about/Amending_America.html?id=A8wJAAAACAAJ
- History.com staff. "The Fight for Women's Suffrage." History.com. 2009. (Aug. 24, 2016) http://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/the-fight-for-womens-suffrage
- House Judiciary Committee. "H.J. Res. 661." April 21, 1938. (Aug. 17, 2016) https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24824208
- Musmanno, Michael Angelo. "Proposed Amendments to the Constitution." U.S. Government Printing Office. 1929. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b3639821;view=1up;seq=5
- National Archives. "The Constitutional Amendment Process." 2016. (Aug. 17, 2016) https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/constitution/
- National Archives. "US National Archives Exhibit." 2016. (Aug. 16, 2016) http://usnatarchivesexhibits.tumblr.com/post/148048717491/widows-and-spinsters-before-the-19th-amendment
- Special to The New York Times. "Letters to Congress: Amend the Constitution? Let Us Count the Ways." The New York Times. Aug. 3, 1987. (Aug. 15, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/03/us/washinton-talk-letters-to-congress-amend-the-constitution-let-us-count-the-ways.html
- United States House of Representatives. "Journal of the House." U.S. Government Printing Office. 1888.
- United States Senate. "House Member Introduces Resolution to Abolish the Senate." 2016. (Aug. 15, 2016) http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/House_Member_Introduces_Resolution_To_Abolish_the_Senate.htm
- Vile, John R. "Encyclopedia of Constitutional Amendments, Proposed Amendments, and Amending Issues, 1789-1995." ABC-CLIO. 1996. https://books.google.com/books/about/Encyclopedia_of_Constitutional_Amendment.html?id=rMZsAAAAIAAJ