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How the U.S. Constitution Has Evolved Over Time

America has grown and changed during the last 200 years, and so has the U.S. Constitution, including amendments to our voting laws and age, and limiting presidential terms in office. 

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

In 1787, only white men over 21 could vote, and the President could serve for as long as he was elected! These Constitutional amendments changed those laws.

15th Amendment. This amendment, ratified in 1870, said that no citizen's vote could be taken away because of his race or color or because he was once a slave. In 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, giving slaves their freedom. Nine years later this amendment gave citizens of all races the right to vote. It was a start in giving blacks full equality with whites.

19th Amendment. After this amendment was ratified in 1920, all women in the U.S. were allowed to vote. In 1787, men were always considered head of the household. Only they could vote. But women were becoming better educated. By 1848, they were working together to gain voting rights. Lawmakers were finally convinced 72 years later that women could vote as intelligently as men.

22nd Amendment. This amendment limits a president to two terms in office. George Washington started the presidential tradition of serving for two four-year terms. President Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected four terms in a row, was the first to break with this tradition. Many Americans thought that his four terms had allowed him to become too powerful. This national feeling helped get this amendment ratified in 1951.

26th Amendment. This amendment was passed in 1971, and it gave people 18 to 20 years old the right to vote. The national voting age had been 21. Eighteen-year-olds are old enough to join the U.S. armed forces. Many people think that this makes them old enough to vote for U.S. leaders, too. This amendment had widespread support. It was ratified in only four months.

Why has the Constitution changed?

Here's why, including what might be in store for the future of the Constitution.

You may have heard the U.S. Constitution called "a living document." Though it may seem like a dry piece of paper to you, it really is designed to live and grow as the nation grows.

Even the Founding Fathers knew it might have to change with the times. Article Five of the Constitution spells it out: "The Congress, whenever two-thirds of both Houses [the House and the Senate] shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution . . ." States were also given a chance to propose changes, or amendments. Three-fourths of the states have to approve the amendment for it to become law.

In the past 200 years, the Constitution has been amended 27 times. The 13th Amendment, in 1865, forever banned the practice of slavery. The 15th Amendment, in 1870, gave all citizens the right to vote, regardless of their race.

Americans have added laws only to take them back. In 1919, the 18th Amendment was passed. It banned the making and selling of alcohol. But it was impossible to get all people to stop drinking. Many people felt the government had no right to make laws about their private habits. So in 1933, the 21st Amendment was adopted. It repealed, or canceled, the 18th Amendment.

The nation may need amendments in the future. For example, advances in technology may change the way we communicate. Someday, we may be able to vote from our own homes, hooked into central computers through our TV sets. And what if we are able to live in space? We may need new laws to govern space life.

What kind of laws do you think we will need in the future? How would you change the Constitution if you could?

Newstime asked that question of people who've worked closely with the Constitution. Here are their responses.

Warren Burger, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1969-86: "It is not perfect, as Franklin said, but the best thing of its kind that was ever put together."

Jimmy Carter, President, 1977-81: "[One of the] changes I would like to see in the Constitution: Elect Presidents for one six- or seven-year term."

Gerald Ford, President, 1974-77: "I would favor repeal of the 22nd Amendment that imposes a two-term limitation on a President's service."

Richard Nixon, President, 1969-74: "I would lengthen the term of members of the House of Representatives from two years to four years. This would give them more time to concentrate on policy instead of politics!"

 

Adapted from Scholastic Newstime.

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  • Subjects:
    Civil Rights, Civics and Government, Constitution and Bill of Rights
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