Ranking the Most Important Constitutional Amendments (post-Bill of Rights)

For today’s History List, I look at the lesser known amendments to our constitution that were ratified after the Bill of Rights. (Everyone knows the 1st and 5th amendments, but what about the 23rd?) I rank them as to how important they are today, not necessarily how important they were at the moment they were ratified.

And away we go:

1. 13th Amendment – Ratified almost immediately after the end of the Civil War, this abolished slavery in the United States, removing America’s original sin and fundamentally changing the nation’s character. Without this, the United States would have lacked the moral gravitas to act as a force for civil rights around the world.

2. 14th Amendment – Makes the citizenship of former slaves part of the constitution, removing any potential legal challenges or clever legislative devices to deny the benefits of freedom to those formerly held as slaves. This amendment was largely a reaction to the attempts of Southern states to so restrict the movements and activities of African-Americans as to return them to something very much like slavery.

3. 15th Amendment – Makes it unconstitutional to restrict voting based on race. Another Reconstruction amendment codifying the rights of former slaves.

4. 19th Amendment – Makes it unconstitutional to restrict voting based on gender. Giving women the right to vote took until 1920 – fifty years after African-Americans got the vote.

5. 24th Amendment – Another voting rights act, this time making it unconstitutional to compel voters to pay a tax in order to vote. These “poll taxes” were applied to Southern blacks as a way to discourage their voting. This amendment wasn’t passed until 1964, almost 100 years after the Civil War.

6. 16th Amendment – Allows a federal income tax. We may hate it, but this is how the massive machine that is our government gets paid for.

7. 12th Amendment – In the election of 1800 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, running mates in the Presidential election, tied in electoral votes. (In those days, vote-getter #1 became President, while the runner-up became Vice-President.) The contest went to the House of Representatives, where Burr almost wrested the presidency from Jefferson.  This amendment straightened out the process, making it clear to electors who was running for President and who was running for Vice President.

8. 17th Amendment – United States Senators used to be selected by state legislatures. This amendment elects them by a direct vote of the people.

9. 21st Amendment – repeals the 18th amendment (prohibition of alcohol), ending the gangster era and bringing drunkards out of closet.

10. 22nd Amendment- Ratified in 1951 as a response to Franklin Roosevelt being elected four times, this amendment restricts the President to two terms of office. This amendment had the unintentional effect of making every two-term president a “lame duck,” with limited power and influence. In reality, a president has a term and a half to get his agenda passed, after that, forget about it.

11. 25th Amendment – Clarified the order of Presidential succession. Here it is, in case you were wondering:

Office Currently Held By
1 Vice President Joe Biden
2 Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi
3 President pro tempore of the Senate Robert Byrd
4 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
5 Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner
6 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
7 Attorney General Eric Holder
8 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
9 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
10 Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
11 Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis
12 Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius
13 Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan
14 Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood
15 Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
16 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
17 Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki
18 Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano

12. 26th Amendment – In 1971, the voting age was dropped to 18, immediately causing millions of young Americans to ignore it.

13. 11th Amendment – Prevents states from being sued by citizens. Can you imagine how hopelessly clogged our court system would be if you could sue the government?

14. 23rd Amendment – In 1961, the voters of Washington, D.C. finally got included in the Electoral College. Democrats have been thankful ever since.

15. 27th Amendment – This amendment, which was only ratified in 1992, says that any Congressional pay raise (or decrease) cannot take effect until the next Congress is seated. In 1873, Congress tried to give themselves a 50% pay raise, backdated to the beginning of their terms! This ruse failed when the public caught wind of it.

16. 20th Amendment – Presidents used to be sworn in on March 4th, but with travel being much faster than it was in Washington’s day, this amendment changed the date to January 20, with Congress being sworn in on January 3.

17. 18th Amendment – (Prohibition of alcohol) This amendment tried to legislate morality and failed, giving rise to an era of speakeasies, gangsters and classic movies about speakeasies and gangsters. The 21st Amendment repealed it.

10 Worst Days in United States History

In honor of Black Friday, this week’s History List ranks the ten darkest days in U.S. history. In drawing up this list, I take into account not just fatalities, but also the impact that the event had upon the nation’s psyche. For this reason, only one battle makes the list.

Ready for a depressing trip down America’s Memory Lane? Here we go:

10. 01/28/1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger) – Before this tragedy, the U.S. space program had experienced nothing but success since the fatal January 27, 1967 Apollo I launchpad fire. I suspect that we had begun to take this success for granted, going so far as to include a civilian on this mission, Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher. America watched the shuttle explode live on television, instantly killing all on board, and then got to see the confused and horrified reaction from the crowd at the launch site, including McAuliffe’s parents. It was a stunning and sobering reminder that the United States was not infallible, and that space exploration was still very dangerous business.

Christa McAuliffe, in the back row, second from left.

9. 04/18/1906  (San Francisco earthquake, 3,000-6,000 dead) As devastating as this 8.0 magnitude event was, the subsequent fires that tore through the largely wooden buildings caused 90% of the damage in the city. In addition to the dead, 300,000 survivors lost their homes, with losses estimated at $6.5 billion (in 2009 dollars).

8. 04/04/1968 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated) The murder of Dr. King, followed by days of bloody race riots, heralded the end of the spirit of non-violence the slain civil rights leader had championed, and initiated a period of extreme anger and confrontation. 1968 would soon see the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the chaotic Democratic National Convention and a call for a return to “law and order.”

7. 09/08/1900 (Galveston hurricane, 6,000- 12,000 dead) At the time of the hurricane, Galveston, on the Gulf coast, sat just 8 feet above sea level. The storm surge alone was 15 feet high. You do the math. After the town had been obliterated, the stench of corpses could be smelled for miles; they were collected on carts and hauled outside of town for mass burial.

6. 11/22/1963 (Kennedy Assassination) For all of his moral flaws and practical inability to get much done, John Kennedy was perhaps the most inspiring leader of his time. While his popularity represents the triumph of style and ideals over substance and achievements, millions of young Americans saw him as representative of their (and America’s) future. His brutal killing in Dallas, followed by a very public period of mourning, will forever mark the end of an American period of innocence, and it set the stage for a darker, more conflicted time in America’s history.

5. 12/07/1941 (Pearl Harbor) As Christmas 1941 approached, most Americans were thankful to have thus far avoided the scourge of war, and assumed that the nation would continue to do so. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet’s base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, ended this illusion. The tally: 4 battleships sunk; 4 battleships damaged including 1 run aground; 2 destroyers sunk, 1 damaged; 1 other ship sunk, 3 damaged; 3 cruisers damaged; 188 aircraft destroyed, 155 aircraft damaged; 2,345 military and 57 civilians killed, 1,247 military and 35 civilians wounded. Images of the Pearl Harbor disaster covered newspapers the next morning, and a Japanese invasion of the American Pacific coast was considered entirely possible. The internment order for Japanese-Americans would soon follow.

4. 09/11/2001 – Before this day, Americans assumed that terrorism was something that other countries had to worry about, as if our geographic separation from the Middle East would save us. The sheer magnitude of the 9/11 attacks stunned the people of the United States and reminded them of their vulnerability in what could be a very frightening world. It also brought to the surface the depths of the hatred with which some Muslims viewed Americans, and the lengths to which they would go to kill Americans (2,976 on this day alone). Feeling insecure in the aftermath of these attacks, Americans willingly accepted intrusive laws, a government with unheard of investigative powers, and military intervention in the Middle East.

3. 4/15/1865 (Lincoln dies) Abraham Lincoln was the nation’s one constant during the trial of civil war. Generals came and went, territory changed hands and the fortunes of war rose and ebbed, but Lincoln never wavered. Only weeks after having been inaugurated for a second term as president, Abraham Lincoln was dead at the hands of an assassin with Southern sympathies. Just when it had seemed as if the nation would be restored without further antagonism, the main proponent of “letting the Rebels up easy”  had been murdered, and the victors held the vanquished fully responsible. What came next was Radical Reconstruction, as many in the North sought not so much reconciliation as retribution. The Old South would be militarily occupied for another dozen years, and forever relegated to the status of economic backwater.

2. 10/29/1929 (stock market) The largely unregulated stock market, full of excesses that had fueled the Roaring 20’s, met with disaster on this day. Banks that had invested poorly folded, taking businesses and family savings with them. The ripple effect brought on the Great Depression, sending millions to the unemployment rolls and devastating the nation’s economy for 12 years, where it could only be ended by the ramp up to World War II. The financial turmoil of this event helped dictators rise to power in Europe and left scars upon a generation that never fully healed. (Just ask anyone over 75.)

1. 08/24/1814 (Washington, D.C. burned) In an event that is today little talked about and even less understood, the capital of the United States was occupied by a foreign power and laid waste. And Americans were helpless to stop it. In 1814, the third year of the War of 1812, England, having finally dispatched Bonaparte, focused its full attention on the wide expanse and paltry military of the United States. While its army and navy occupied eastern New England and planned multiple invasions, British negotiators demanded large land cessions as the price of peace (seeking not only to establish a neutral Indian buffer state in what is now the states bordering the Great Lakes, but also revising both the Canadian‐American boundary and the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that had established the United States as an independent nation). When Washington, D.C fell, almost effortlessly, to the British invasion forces, many thought that the United States was finished as an independent nation. New England actually considered seceding from the United States, and made plans to hold a convention with that object in mind. At the end of August 1814, America teetered at death’s door as a political entity. Fortunately, there would be miracles soon forthcoming at Baltimore and Lake Champlain.

(Dis)Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

04/12/1861 (Ft. Sumter)

11/16/1776 (Ft. Washington abandoned)

3/06/1857 (Dred Scott)

04/12/1945 (FDR’s death)

04/09/1942 (Bataan)

09/17/1862 (Antietam)

D.C. Sniper John Allen Muhammad is Dead, and I Don’t Feel Any Better

Last night, the state of Virginia executed convicted D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. Many commentators had said (as they always do), that this final act was really about “closure” for the victims’ families, and yet, none of those family members admitted to feelings of closure last night, and a few denied it outright. I suspect that the only true instance of closure last night belonged to Muhammed. Yes, I know that he deserved it, but it still made me feel uneasy, and more than a little bit conflicted.

Don’t think that I’m just someone who can’t stomach the death penalty (there are plenty of crimes I think are quite suited for it, especially where children are involved).  I believe that the reason I, like many Americans, feel sympathy for the condemned killers at the time of their execution is more logical. When the crimes are committed, and fresh in our memories, we surge with horror and outrage. We imagine what the last moments of the victims must have been like, and try to empathize with their families. At that moment, our sense of justice cries out for retribution against the perpetrator.

However, the wheels of due process grind very slowly. Gradually, over time, our outrage fades, new crimes replace the old, and we forget the faces of the innocent. At the time of trial, our attention may be regained briefly, but only with a fleeting, passing glance – certainly not with the same intensity as it had been at the time of the crimes. By the time the killer is sentenced to die, our emotional state is approaching something more akin to ambivalence than righteous fury. The process has begun.

The process of emotional dissociation accelerates throughout the ensuing years, as appeals are filed, motions are lost and requests for new trials are denied. Time passes. As the final appeal winds its way toward the Supreme Court, and the date of execution draws closer, the media once again becomes conscious of the story, but the perspective has changed. At this point the stories do not revolve around the horrific nature of the crimes, or the suffering of the victims and their families, but on the condemned’s struggle to survive.

In the final weeks leading up to the execution, we are peppered with professions of innocence, lawyer’s statements that detail the several and serious errors from the original trial and the testimony of credible-sounding people who claim that the convicted person could not possibly have done the thing of which he is accused. We listen, we read, and slowly, imperceptibly, we find our imaginations caught up in the plight of a killer to live just one more month, one more week, one more day.

During the final few days, we become increasingly uncomfortable as it becomes apparent that the condemned is, in fact, doomed to die. We might wonder how one faces the idea that no matter what he does, his life will suddenly end in a now easily quantifiable number of hours. Does he try to stay awake, squeezing out every conscious hour of life that he can? Does he stare at the clock, watching his life inexorably drain away? So much is made of the last meal; how can a man that will be killed in a few hours enjoy anything, much less food? Who could have an appetite at a time like that?

And then, the day arrives. We are busy living lives that have a tomorrow. Still, at moments throughout the day, we may see a clock and quickly do the math: Three hours until he dies. Again we wonder: what is he doing? What is he thinking? Is he keeping his composure? More to the point, could I keep my composure?

The hours pass and we are made aware of a man’s sudden death by a scrolling text at the bottom of a television screen. We consider this for a moment and then return to more immediate concerns, such as whether Daniel will finally get voted off of The Biggest Loser. For us, life goes on, albeit a little more gingerly than before, for a few days anyway, until this death too passes from our conscious memory.

Clearly, it is the buffer of many years’ time that allows our sympathies to be transferred from the victim to the killer. Not that long ago, justice was swift, catching up the convicted while the blood lust of the people was still fully aroused. When the condemned met his fate, there was a sense that balance had been restored; few tears were shed for a person who had done such terrible things, things that had not yet passed from common recall. A primal need for revenge had been satisfied.

I do not long for a return to the days when crime, conviction and consummation all took place within a period of weeks. Justice cannot be accomplished where doubt remains, and my unease is hardly worth mentioning when compared with the need to be absolutely certain of the guilt of the criminal and the guarantee of due process.

I do, however, find myself wondering: Is this what justice is supposed to feel like?

Honestly? I hope not.