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Analysis

The People’s Constitution

The new book explores the history of constitutional amendments and reminds us who really wrote the Constitution.

September 21, 2021

Who wrote the Consti­tu­tion?

That’s obvi­ous, we think: it was craf­ted by 55 men in powdered wigs who met in Phil­adelphia over the summer of 1787 with the charge of “estab­lish­ing in these states a firm national govern­ment.” But more than 40 percent of the Consti­tu­tion was actu­ally writ­ten after 1787 in a series of 27 amend­ments adop­ted over the course of two centur­ies amid some of the most color­ful, contested, and contro­ver­sial battles in Amer­ican life. While the Framers get all the credit for the nation’s charter, the Amer­ican people deserve to share the byline. 

Today, with the public­a­tion of The People’s Consti­tu­tion by the Bren­nan Center’s own John Kowal and Wilfred Codring­ton, this history comes vividly to life in a book Publish­ers Weekly calls “a fresh and invig­or­at­ing take on the history of Amer­ican demo­cracy.” 

The book tells the 233-year story of how the Amer­ican people have taken an imper­fect Consti­tu­tion — a docu­ment both profoundly vision­ary and funda­ment­ally flawed — and made it more demo­cratic, more inclus­ive, and more suited to the needs of a chan­ging coun­try through the Article V amend­ing process. Some of these addi­tions have wrought profound changes to Amer­ica’s funda­mental law: safe­guard­ing indi­vidual liber­ties, ending slavery, expand­ing access to the ballot, uphold­ing equal­ity. Others are best described as tech­nical fixes. 

But when we consider the 27 amend­ments as a whole, it is no exag­ger­a­tion to say that much of what we consider the very heart of our national charter — from its protec­tions for free speech and reli­gion to its guar­an­tees of due process and equal protec­tion of the laws — come from these peri­odic upgrades to the Framers’ beta version of our national charter. 

This lively and access­ible history explores an intriguing pattern. In recur­ring cycles, Amer­ic­ans have added several new amend­ments in the span of a few years’ time, prod­ded by power­ful social move­ments. Just as predict­ably, these peri­ods of ferment are followed by decades-long dry spells. In this way, our Consti­tu­tion has been revital­ized and its prom­ise renewed in four distinct waves of Consti­tu­tional change. 

Twelve Found­ing Era amend­ments (1789–1804) fixed glitches and omis­sions in the original text, includ­ing the lack of compre­hens­ive protec­tion for indi­vidual rights. 

Three Recon­struc­tion amend­ments (1865–1870) prom­ised a “second found­ing” after the cata­clysm of the Civil War, guar­an­tee­ing equal citizen­ship and voting rights to newly freed African-Amer­ican men while impos­ing signi­fic­ant new limits on state govern­ments, partic­u­larly in the South. 

Four Progress­ive Era amend­ments (1909–1920) embod­ied the modern­iz­ing zeal of the age: author­iz­ing the income tax, provid­ing for the popu­lar elec­tion of senat­ors, extend­ing the fran­chise to women, and launch­ing the misguided exper­i­ment of Prohib­i­tion. 

And four Civil Rights Era amend­ments (1960–1971) further expan­ded voting rights while updat­ing pres­id­en­tial succes­sion amid the dooms­day fears of the nuclear age. 

In these polar­ized times, it may seem impossible to imagine forging the broad consensus needed to amend the Consti­tu­tion anytime soon. And yet, as Kowal and Codring­ton explore, when our Consti­tu­tion seems unable to adapt to chan­ging times, when polit­ical grid­lock and a retro­grade Supreme Court stand in the way of needed reforms, the next wave of consti­tu­tional change may already be build­ing.

Which reforms will rise to the top of the agenda? Will we finally abol­ish the Elect­oral College and provide mean­ing­ful protec­tion for every citizen’s right to vote? Will far-right activ­ists succeed in summon­ing a new consti­tu­tional conven­tion to radic­ally restrict the size and power of the federal govern­ment? 

For more on this rigor­ous yet intim­ate history, check out New Press’s website. You won’t be sorry.