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In his farewell address, President Washington reminded his audience that the Constitution, "till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all." He regarded the Constitution as a binding document worthy of devout allegiance, but also believed that it contains a clear and appropriate procedure for its own reform. David Kyvig's illuminating study provides the most complete and insightful history of that amendment process and its fundamental importance for American political life.
Over the course of the past two centuries, more than 10,000 amendments have been proposed by the method stipulated in Article V of the Constitution. Amazingly, only 33 have garnered the required two-thirds approval from both houses of Congress, and only 27 were ultimately ratified into law by the states. Despite their small number, those amendments have revolutionized American government while simultaneously legitimizing and preserving its continued existence. Indeed, they have dramatically altered the relationship between state and federal authority, as well as between government and private citizens.
Kyvig reexamines the creation and operation of Article V, illuminating the process and substance of each major successful and failed effort to change the formal structure, duties, and limits of the federal government. He analyzes in detail the Founders' intentions; the periods of great amendment activity during the 1790s, 1860s, 1910s, and 1960s; and the considerable consequences of amendment failure involving slavery, alcohol prohibition, child labor, New Deal programs, school prayer, equal rights for women, abortion, balanced budgets, term limits, and flag desecration.
Ultimately, Kyvig demonstrates that so-called "constitutional revolutions" can only endure through formal amendment; without it such sea changes as the New Deal are likely to be temporary amidst the shifting winds of political fortune. That truth underscores the centrality of the amendment process to American constitutionalism, sheds light on the "amendment fever" that swept through the 104th Congress, and better prepares us to deal with such initiatives in the future.
1. "Here Shall Be Thy Bonds": The Rise of Constitutionalism
2. "To Rectify the Errors that Will Creep In": The Emergence of the Amending Corollary
3. "A Peaceful Process of Cure": Devising the American Amending System
4. "A Remedy in the System Itself": Amending and the Adoption of the Constitution
5. "The Most Satisfactory Provisions for All Essential Rights": Immediate Amendment as the Constitution's Price and Proof
6. "Too Ticklish to be Unnecessarily Multiplied": Amendments and the Judicial Review Alternative
7. "In Pursuit of an Impracticable Theory": States' Rights and Constitutional Amendment
8. "Consummated Amid Fiery Passions": The Second American Constitutional Revolution
9. "No Force Less Than the Force of Revolution": Resurrecting the Amending Remedy
10. "Just as Far as Public Sentiment Would Justify": An Era of Constitutional Activity and Faith
11. "Like the Ratchet on a Cog Wheel": Second Thoughts About the Amendment
12. "Where the People Themselves Express Their Will": Altering Established Constitutional Provisions and Practices
13. "The Danger of Tinkering": Forgoing Amendment in the Third American Constitutional Revolution
14. "The Sharp Anger of a Moment": Attempted Counterrevolution by Amendment
15. "Not Perfect, But Better Than No Solution": Amendments to Solve Immediate Problems
16. "To Set Out on a Vast Uncharted Sea": Failed Quests to Alter Original Agreements
17. "They Thought That Just Being Right Would Be Enough": Amendments as Tests of National Consensus
18. "To Manipulate the Symbol of National Purpose": Amendment Politics in a Conservative Era
19. "The Offspring of Our Own Choice": Amendments in Constitutional Thought and Practice