Prior to achieving statehood in March 1791, the Republic of Vermont placed a provision in their 1786 State Constitution. Every seven years, the people would elect a 13-person Council of Censors who would examine whether: “the Constitution has been preserved inviolate in every part, during the last septenary (including the year of their service;) and whether the legislative and executive branches of government have performed their duty, as guardians of the people, or assumed to themselves, or exercised other or greater powers than they are entitled to by the Constitution: they are also to inquire, whether the public taxes have been justly laid and collected in all parts of this Commonwealth–in what manner the public monies have been disposed of–and whether the laws have been duly executed.”[i] This Council would: “recommend to the Legislature the repealing such laws as appear to them to have been enacted contrary to the principles of the Constitution; these powers they shall continue to have, for, and during the space of one year from the day of their election, and no longer. The said Council of Censors shall also have power to call a Convention, to meet within two years after their sitting, if there appears to them an absolute necessity of amending any article of this Constitution which may be defective–explaining such as may be thought not clearly expressed–and of adding such as are necessary for the preservation of the rights and happiness of the people; but the articles to be amended, and the amendments proposed and such articles as are proposed to be added or abolished, shall be promulgated at least six months before the day appointed for the election of such Convention, for the previous consideration of the people, that they may have an opportunity of instructing their delegates on the subject.” (Emphasis added)
Laying on land claimed by both New Hampshire, New York and, at times, Canada, Vermont finally became an independent republic on January 15, 1777. It called itself the State of Vermont but failed to receive recognition by any country until admitted to the union on March 4, 1791.[ii] Because of its independency, Vermont was not invited to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. If it had been invited, would these ideas of constitutional review and revision have made it into the United States Constitution? If the U.S. Constitution had contained such a provision, what sort of amendments might have been ratified over these 234 years (as of 2023). And over these years, would the Constitutional “Council of Censors” find, repeatedly, that the Constitution had not “been preserved inviolate in every part”?
Amendment Under the Articles of Confederation
One of the chief defects of the Articles of Confederation, found in Article XIII, reads in part: “nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of [these Articles]; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.”[iii] (Emphasis added)
This requirement for unanimity among the states meant that the Articles would never be amended or otherwise improved. In his Vices of the Political System of the United States, James Madison’s “homework assignment” to himself, he fails to mention this flaw among the twelve “vices” he identifies; it could be that much of the “blame” for America’s moving to a new Constitution is due to this one defect. At the Constitutional Convention, Charles Pinckney said “it is to this unanimous consent [provision of the Articles], the depressed situation of the Union is undoubtedly owing. Had the measures recommended by Congress and assented to, some of them by eleven and others by twelve of the States, been carried into execution, how different would have been the complexion of Public Affairs? To this weak, this absurd part of the Government, may all our distresses be fairly attributed.”[iv]
In 1781, a proposal was made to amend the Articles of Confederation to give Congress the power to set an impost on goods. Rhode Island refused to approve the measure. As described in the notes of delegate James Madison, “[t]he small district of Rhode Island put a negative upon the collective wisdom of the continent.” Just as Rhode Island’s veto prevented the adoption of an impost in 1781, New York would be the sole state to obstruct a second impost attempt two years later.
Early in 1785, a Congressional committee recommended amending the Articles of Confederation to give Congress power over commerce. Congress sent the proposed amendment to the state legislatures; only a few states responded.
Later that year, in a letter to James Warren, George Washington, wrote: “In a word, the confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without the substance;..Indeed it is one of the most extraordinary things …that we should confederate for National purposes, and yet be afraid to give the rulers of that nation… sufficient powers to order and direct the affairs of the same.”[v]
In 1786, Charles Pinckney proposed a revision of the Articles. A committee debated the proposal and recommended granting Congress power over both foreign and domestic commerce, and empowering Congress to collect money owed by the states. By now, convinced that at least one state would disagree, Congress never sent the measure to the states. Given this history, it appeared to the Constitutional Convention delegates that something less than unanimity was required to amend the new Constitution they had drafted.
Amendment at the Constitutional Convention
Item seventeen of the Virginia Plan, introduced in the “Grand Convention” on May 29, 1787, stated: “Resolved. that provision ought to be made for the amendment of the articles of Union, whensoever it shall seem necessary;” There were many provisions of the Virginia Plan to discuss and debate. The delegates did not discuss a process of amendment until a month before the end of the convention.
Alexander Hamilton … suggested that Congress, acting on its own initiative, should have the power to call a convention to propose amendments.[vii] In his view, Congress would perceive the need for amendments before the states.15 Roger Sherman took Hamilton’s proposal a step further, moving that Congress itself be authorized to propose amendments that would become part of the Constitution upon ratification by all of the states.16 James Wilson moved to modify Sherman’s proposal to require three-fourths of the states for ratification of an amendment.17 James Madison offered substitute language that permitted two-thirds of both houses of Congress to propose amendments, and required Congress to propose an amendment after two-thirds of the states had suggested one.18 This language passed unanimously.19
But on September 15, 1787, two days before the convention adjourned for the last time, Article V of the draft Constitution was again discussed. To that point, the approved wording gave all power to Congress to officially propose amendments, although the states could suggest them. Virginia’s George Mason rose and cautioned that: “No amendments of the proper kind would ever be obtained by the people, if the Government should become oppressive (as Madison wrote in his notes), as he verily believed would be the case.” Gouverneur Morris and Elbridge Gerry then moved to require a convention on application of two-thirds of the states and the motion passed “nem: con:” (unanimously). And this provided the alternate method of proposing constitutional amendments: a convention of the states. But notice the rationale for this alternate method of amendment: should Congress become oppressive.
The process of amendment placed in Article V was further debated in the state ratifying conventions, the records of Massachusetts,[viii] North Carolina[ix] and Virginia[x] particularly recording the concerns of delegates. Some convention delegates, like Virginia’s Edmund Randolph, who refused to sign the Constitution, even called for an amending convention[xi] to be immediately convened to fix the “deficiencies” in the Constitution before they went into operation, which would make them harder to correct. Madison thought the idea dangerous. Randolph’s suggestion never gained momentum and the Constitution was ratified by Virginia on June 26, 1788, four days after New Hampshire’s ratification “sealed the deal” because it was the ninth state to ratify, the number of states required by the new Constitution. Less than a year later, the new national government went into operation.
Amending the Constitution – Correctly
Article V of the United States Constitution contains two methods of proposing amendments and two methods of ratifying amendments. Congress, with a two-thirds vote of both chambers, can propose an amendment for ratification by the states and the states themselves, in a convention called for that purpose, can propose amendments for ratification. Over America’s history, all 27 current amendments have been proposed by Congress, none by a convention of the states.
Ratification of a proposed amendment can also take two forms: ratification by three-fourths of the several state legislatures (38) or ratification by three-fourths of state conventions held for that purpose, Congress may “propose” either method. Over America’s history, the later method of ratification has been used only once, to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment.
As many as five thousand amendments have been proposed in Congress since the Constitution went into effect in 1789 and only twenty-seven survived the high hurdle of committee discussions/votes followed by super majority floor votes in both chambers.
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook or Twitter @constitutionled.
[ii] It was Vermont’s admission to the Union which required ratification of the Bill of Rights by ten states versus the nine required to ratify the Constitution itself.