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Tag: Congress

Amending the Constitution: 100 Days to 200 Years

The Constitution hasn’t changed much since it was adopted in 1787.

However, it has been tweaked by 27 amendments—some were ratified in a few months, another took more than two centuries.

The ink on the Constitution had barely dried in 1787 when people discovered what it did not say. It did not spell out adequately, they argued, the individual rights that citizens of the United States had under the Constitution.

So James Madison, the “father of the Constitution” and a member of the House of Representatives from Virginia, went to work.

The result: 12 amendments. They were approved by Congress in late 1789 and sent to the 13 states for ratification, which, then as now under the Constitution, required three-quarters of the state legislatures or constitutional conventions.

Twelve? Yes, but only ten (originally numbers three through 12), known to us all today as the Bill of Rights, were approved. It took 811 days to ratify those ten, and they became part of the Constitution on December 15, 1791. Each December 15, we observe Bill of Rights Day.

The proposed first amendment, dealing with congressional apportionment, has never been ratified. The proposed second amendment, dealing with congressional pay, was approved by the Michigan and New Jersey legislatures on the same day in 1992—more than 202 years after Congress submitted it to the 13 states. By 1992, … [ Read all ]

The Check is in the Mail: The Hunt for Abraham Lincoln’s Congressional Pay Records

Today’s blog post comes from David J. Gerleman, assistant editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln’s two-year stint as a Illinois Whig congressman is one of the lesser-known periods of his eventful life. Had he remained in obscurity, it might have remained the crowning achievement of a fizzled frontier political career.

Having been tasked with looking through the records of the 30th Congress for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, I have gotten to know Congressman Lincoln intimately. Well over a year was spent sorting through the sea of papers generated by Congress for the years 1847–49: handwritten draft bills, printed amended bills, engrossed bills, resolutions, joint resolutions, simple motions, yea and nay journals, petitions, letters, committee papers—all these and more had to be searched for traces of Lincoln. Among the wealth of congressional materials were volumes dedicated to recording minute expenses, such as the cost of firewood, stationary, and glue. There were records of how much paper folders, messengers, and cleaning women were paid, yet one vital component was missing—Lincoln’s pay and mileage records.

Ironically, it was Lincoln’s great rival, Stephen A. Douglas, who helped set off an intense search for pay records of the 30th Congress. While hunting through an odd cache of files in the Auditors of the Treasury Records in pursuit of a Lincoln document involving “Coffee Mill Guns,” … [ Read all ]

Emancipation Proclamation: The 13th Amendment

Today’s blog post comes from National Archives social media intern Anna Fitzpatrick.

The news of the Emancipation Proclamation was greeted with joy, even though it did not free all the slaves. Because of the limitations of the proclamation, and because it depended on a Union military victory, President Lincoln recognized that the Emancipation Proclamation would have to be followed by a constitutional amendment in order to abolish slavery.

After the Senate passed a bill for an amendment in April 1864, but the House of Representatives did not, Lincoln suggested that the bill be taken up by the Republican Party in its 1864 platform for the upcoming Presidential elections.

His efforts met with success when the House passed the bill in January 1865. On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed amendment to the state legislatures. The necessary number of states ratified it by December 6, 1865.

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution formally abolished slavery in the United States. It provides that ”Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The struggle for complete freedom was far from finished even with the 13th Amendment. Two more amendments were added to the … [ Read all ]

Emancipation Proclamation: Petitioning for Freedom

Today’s blog post comes from National Archives social media intern Anna Fitzpatrick.

January 1 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. While this document is remembered for freeing the slaves in the Southern states, petitioners had been attempting to end slavery since the nation’s founding. Petitions by anti-slavery groups were sent to the newly elected Congress soon after it first met.

On December 30, 1799, the Reverend Absalom Jones and other free blacks of Philadelphia sent a petition to Congress. Although they recognized the “blessing” of their freedom, they were concerned about their fellow men: “We cannot be insensible of the condition of our afflicted Brethren, suffering under various circumstances in different parts of these States; but deeply sympathizing with them, We are incited by a sense of Social duty and humbly conceive ourselves authorized to address and petition you in their behalf.”

Jones and the petitioners noted that the Constitution “is violated by a trade carried on in a clandestine manner to the Coast of Guinea.” They also mentioned that the Southerners’ practice of kidnapping free African Americans and transporting them to Southern states in order to sell them also violated the “solemn Compact” of the Constitution. The petition ends with this appeal:

In the Constitution, and the Fugitive bill, no mention is made of Black people or Slaves—therefore if the Bill of

[ Read all ]

No, it’s not in the Constitution

These days, pundits, candidates, and party activists like to cite the Constitution of the United States as the moral and legal backing for whatever they’re proposing.

But the Constitution is silent on a lot of things you probably thought it said. Here are eight examples.

The President can veto a proposed amendment to the Constitution.

No. He has nothing to do with the amendments. Congress can propose an amendment with a two-thirds vote of both houses, or a Constitutional Convention can be called by a vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures. However, once the amendment is proposed either by Congress or a convention, it must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.

Only one amendment, the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition (the 18th Amendment), was ratified by conventions in the states.

The “Founding Fathers” who wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 are the same men who wrote the Constitution in 1787.

Only five individuals signed both of these two founding documents. They were George Clymer, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, George Read, and Roger Sherman. Some of the famous signers of the Declaration were elsewhere when the Constitution was being written. Thomas Jefferson was in France as our American minister, and John Adams was American minister to Great Britain.

The Constitution established the system of Federal courts.

No. The Constitution established “one supreme … [ Read all ]