1791

Amending America:  The Shape of Our Government

U.S. National Archives

Selections from a National Archives Exhibit, part of the Amending America Initiative

Only 27 times - out of more than 11,000 proposals - have Americans reached consensus to amend the Constitution.

It is difficult - but not impossible - to turn an idea into an amendment. So few amendments have been successful because our Constitution sets a high bar to pass amendments. So, what kinds of proposals achieve enough support to become a ratified amendment?

Explore selected stories about how we have attempted to change the shape of our government.

The Founders who wrote the Constitution were uncertain it would work. They were constructing new ways to run a government that had never been tried before. It's not surprising, then, that time would reveal some flaws or inefficiencies that needed to be addressed.

Only Two Terms For President

Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to seriously challenge the two-term limit precedent set by George Washington. Roosevelt was criticized for running a third term in 1912. He asserted that technically the 1904 campaign was his first true run for the Presidency, since taking office in 1901 after President William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt lost the election.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third Presidential term in 1940, Europe was engulfed in the flames of World War II, and America would soon join.

Less troubled with breaking George Washington's precedent, many Americans wanted the most qualified person to lead the nation during war. After Roosevelt won a fourth term, the 22nd Amendment limited future Presidents to two.

Acting President?

In 1841, William Harrison became the first President to die in office. Vice President John Tyler was sworn in, but Congress couldn't agree on whether he was "President" or "Acting President." This resolution failed and Tyler assumed the full duties of the President. It wasn't until the 25th Amendment in 1967 that Presidential succession would be fully addressed.

Political Crisis Averted...

Without the 25th Amendment, the nation may have faced a political crisis in 1974. Accused of tax evasion, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, then President Richard Nixon resigned during the Watergate investigation in 1974. Both offices could have remained vacant, but under the 25th Amendment, the President could nominate a replacement. Nixon asked House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford for recommendations, but ultimately chose Ford himself.

Tie Vote For President

There was a 73-73 tie vote in the electoral college in the 1800 Presidential election. It was resolved only after Alexander Hamilton encouraged the House of Representatives to elect his adversary Thomas Jefferson over his future mortal enemy Aaron Burr. In 1804, the 12th Amendment modified the electoral college, ensuring that a tie vote would not occur again.

No More Electoral College?

We don't actually vote for the President. We vote for the electoral college, whose members then vote for the candidate of our choice. Although the first efforts to abolish the electoral college came right after the 1800 election debacle, this proposed amendment has not passed Congress. This proposal from Massachusetts includes the most popular reasons for direct election of the President.

Electing a President By Lot

We could chose our President by picking a ball from a bowl. This was one of many ideas suggested in Congress for replacing the electoral college system devised by the Founders. The method may have been an attempt to sidestep the growing sectional rivalries before the Civil War.

Credits: Story

This online exhibit was created under the direction of Lisa Royse, Director of the Museum, and Jim Gardner, the Executive for Presidential Libraries, Legislative Archives, and Museum Programs. The exhibition and this online exhibit would not have been possible without the combined efforts and expertise of many National Archives staff.

Co-Curator - Christine Blackerby, Education and Public Outreach Specialist, Center for Legislative Archives

Co-Curator - Jennifer Johnson, Curator, Exhibits Division

Amending America at the National Archives


Exhibition in Washington, D.C. presented in part by The National Archives Foundation, AT&T, HISTORY®, and The Lawrence O'Brien Family.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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