Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Discuss: Is it too difficult to change the Constitution?

June 20, 2014 by NCC Staff


As part of our Constitution Café series, author Chris Phillips is asking for your thoughts about making the constitutional amendment process easier.

The 17th Amendment

It’s not easy these days to get a proposed amendment through Congress, much less considered by the states for ratification. Since the 27th Amendment was approved in 1992, after a 200-plus year wait, there hasn’t been another amendment ratified.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, believed that the amendment system the Framers put in place was -- as he told the Greek intellectual Adamantios Coray -- “too difficult for remedying the imperfections which experience develops from time to time.”

What do you think? Is the amendment process spelled out in Article 5 too difficult and labyrinthine, and if so, how would you change it? Or is it just right, and if so, why?

Is Article Five the last word when it comes to amending the Constitution?

Constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman maintains in 'We The People' that though they’ve never exercised it, Americans can ratify amendments to the Constitution without having to go through the labyrinthine process detailed in Article Five. To make his case, he points out that a principal Framer stressed, during Constitution ratification debates at his own state convention, that Article Five was by no means the only avenue for amending the document.

During a ratification debate in Pennsylvania, James Wilson insisted that “the people may change the constitutions whenever and however they please.” Wilson further commented, “As our constitutions are superior to our legislatures, so the people are superior to our constitutions,” and so they not only “have the power, if they think proper, to repeal and annul” the Constitution but have “direct authority” for “amending and improving” it.

Given that he was a leading Framer of the Federal Constitution, Wilson’s words carried great weight. His statements were widely noted and quoted, and went a long way towards pacifying anti-federalists’ concerns about the proposed Constitution, paving the way for its passage.

Jefferson, though, told Adamantios Coray that “a greater facility of amendment” should be provided in the Constitution so that it could be revised periodically. An easier amendment process, he believed, would “maintain [the Constitution] in a course of action accommodated to the times and changes through which we are ever passing.”

But James Madison was opposed to any process that might bring about frequent changes to the Constitution since this to him “would, in a great measure, deprive the government of that veneration… without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.”

Constitutional scholar Albert Blaustein offers an encomium to our Framers: in devising a “constitutionally limited republic,” they engineered the creation of an ideal “regime that balanced order and liberty.” Further, to Blaustein, the fact that our Constitution ”has withstood the test of time,” and rarely been amended since the addition of the Bill of Rights, is proof that it is immutable. However, the political theorist Robert Dahl, for one, wondered, “how well does our constitutional system meet democratic standards of the present day?”

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