Democracy in Action II: Gregory Watson’s One-Man Campaign to Amend the Constitution

This is the second in a three-part series on stories of democracy in action. When you think there is everything wrong about politics but there’s nothing you can do about it, these stories are reminders that democracy is about empowering you to make a difference, if only you cared enough.

It all started with a C paper.

It was 1982, and the constitutional debate du jour was the Equal Rights Amendment, which was intended to guarantee equal rights for men and women.  The amendment passed both houses of Congress in 1972 and was given to the states to ratify it within 10 years.  Under Article V of the Constitution, 3/4 of the state legislatures needed to ratify for the amendment to be adopted, but with the 10 year deadline closing in, time was running out.  The debate raged whether Congress should extend the deadline.

It was only natural, then, that Gregory Watson, then a University of Texas student, decided to write a paper on the ERA when he was given the assignment to “write a paper about the governmental process” in his political science class.

While researching for the paper, though, he came across a peculiar fact.  He discovered that when James Madison proposed the first set of constitutional amendments in 1789, he had proposed twelve amendments, only ten of which were ratified by the states to become the Bill of RIghts.

Watson learned that one of the two that did not make it out of the state legislatures simply read, “No law varying the compensation for the services of Senators and Representatives shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”  The amendment, in essence, required that there be at least one opportunity for the people to vote in a general election before members of Congress gave themselves a raise.

Watson became intrigued.  Unlike the ERA, Congress did not set a deadline for  this amendment to be ratified when it was first sent to the state legislatures for ratification.  It turned out that after it was proposed, six states immediately ratified it, far short of the nine that was necessary for adoption at the time.  As the union grew, so did the number of states needed to ratify.  By the time Watson made his discovery, 38 states were needed to ratify the amendment.

After looking into some Supreme Court cases, Watson concluded that even after 192 years having passed, the amendment could still be ratified if enough state legislatures approved it.  In writing his paper, he took the argument a step further: he contended that, as a matter of public policy, it should be ratified in order to fight corruption.

The teaching assistant who graded the paper was unconvinced, giving the paper (what was then) a mediocre grade.  Also going unheeded was Watson’s appeal to the course instructor, Sharon Waite, who was unimpressed with the paper’s assertions that she deemed “unrealistic.”

All college students at one point or another get a grade they disagree with.  What made Watson truly remarkable was that he dropped out of college to prove the professor wrong.

He knew that the key to passing a constitutional amendment is in the state legislatures.  What he didn’t know, though, was which states still needed to pass the amendment, much less specific state legislators who would support him in the cause.

So he wrote to members of Congress in the states he knew hadn’t passed the amendment, targeting Congressmen and Senators whose records indicated they supported legislation to limit congressional pay increases.  He asked a simple question, “Who in your state legislature might be willing to sponsor a bill to ratify the amendment?”

Senator William Cohen of Maine was one of the first to respond, forwarding the letter to a state senator of the state.  In 1983, Maine became the first state to ratify the amendment based on Watson’s efforts.  Colorado soon followed suit.

Two states in two years, though, was too slow; with over 30 states needing to ratify, it would have taken three decades to complete the task.

So Watson decided to crank up the effort in 1984 by beginning a campaign to write to all state legislators in the states that had not ratified the amendment.  Knowing from personal experience in his day job in the Texas state legislature that politicians rarely paid much attention to form letters, he worked to personalize each letter, all of which he typed on a typewriter.  His one-man crusade wasn’t just time-consuming–the campaign was engulfing his entire life, into late hours of the evening–but also expensive, costing over $6,000 in stamps, stationary and photocopying.

Even with a massive letter-writing campaign, the progress was painfully slow.  But Watson’s efforts were gradually paying off.  As more state legislatures ratified the amendment, the movement picked up steam and the pace of state approvals quickened.  Even then, it wasn’t until Michigan’s state legislature ratified the amendment on May 7, 1982 that the necessary 38 states were finally reached

It took nearly 10 years, but one youngster, with the tenacity to prove a professor wrong, conviction to take action and the perseverance to persuade the others see and do his way, single-handedly amended the United States Constitution.  To this day, the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution remains the most recent amendment to the Supreme Law of the Land.

The above story was put together primarily based on “Citizen Democracy–Political Activists in a Cynical Age” by Stephen E. Frantzich, with contribution from the Wikipedia page on Gregory Watson.


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