Vail Daily column: What the Constitution says
Editor’s note: This is the 13th part of a series.
The 15th Amendment is the last of the Reconstruction Amendments which followed swiftly on the heels of the Civil War. The first two Civil War Amendments, as we visited in the last column, abolished slavery and established equal protection before the law and guaranteed “due process.”
What the 15th is comprised of is two sections, the first of which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The second section simply gave Congress the power to enforce the amendment “by appropriate legislation.”
Reconstruction was now at least theoretically complete: The slaves were free, all citizens were declared completely equal and were afforded equal treatment under the laws, each being was recognized as a whole, distinct and legally equal being, and the right to vote was extended regardless of color, race or prior servitude. What was left for another day, however, was the enfranchisement of women which would not become law for another 49 years.
But the freedom that government giveth, the government can taketh away. And while the feds didn’t exactly re-install the institution of slavery, another form of servitude was adopted with the 16th Amendment.
Passed in 1909 and ratified by the states in 1913, the 16th Amendment provides that “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Yup, the 16th stretched out Uncle Sam’s greasy palm. The first amendment to gain ratification in 40 years, the 16th was a doozy about which the citizenry has been complaining ever since.
Ratified only two months later, the 17th Amendment changed how U.S. senators were selected. Under the original terms of the Constitution, senators were chosen by the various state legislatures rather than being elected by the people. As you might imagine, this system of “indirect election” led to corruption. The 17th Amendment ended this system and the temptations that went with it by allowing direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote.
Next was one of the most ambitious failures in American history. The 18th Amendment stands out more for what it did not accomplish than for what it did. Ratified in 1919, it was repealed 14 years later by the 21st Amendment. Yes, you may have guessed what we are talking about is Prohibition. The 18th Amendment was to the Constitution what Super Bowl XLVIII was to the Broncos … an unmitigated disaster.
The key section was the first of three and provided, “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”
While many Progressives believed that alcohol was the root of much, if not all, evil and sought to cut off “devil drink” at its rum-soaked knees, prohibition simply backfired, leading instead of abstinence to a thriving and muscular black market in bootleg liquor with the profits of illegal booze trade flowing into the coffers of notorious gangsters like Al Capone. After a 15-year experience with this failed social experiment, the 18th Amendment was fully set aside and retired by the 21st.
The 19th Amendment gave women the hard-fought right to vote. Passed in 1919 and ratified quickly thereafter, in 1920, it provides that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” And that “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The last of the Progressive Era amendments to the Constitution (the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th), and nearly 150 years after Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” and Abigail Adams, our second president’s wife, advocated for universal suffrage, American women were, at least so far as voting went, fully equal partners in democracy.
The 20th Amendment is comprised of six sections and were meant to modernize the Constitution. It provided that the terms of the president and vice president shall end “ … at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of senators and representatives at noon on the third day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin; that “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the third day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day”; that “If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the president, the president-elect shall have died, the vice president-elect shall become president. If a president shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the president-elect shall have failed to qualify, then the vice president elect shall act as president until a president shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a president elect nor a vice president shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as president, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a president or vice president shall have qualified”; that “The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a president whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a vice president whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them”; that “Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article”; and that “This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states within seven years from the date of its submission.”
Collectively what the various sections of the 20th Amendment were intended to do was clean up how the elected federal government functioned, particularly in consideration of “modern” transportation and communication. It sought, too, to address an ambiguity in the Constitution regarding what to do in the event the winner of a presidential election died before his inauguration day, or where no candidate won the presidency prior to the beginning of the term — although no such circumstance had ever — as has not since — happened.
The 21st repealed the 18th. It states, in full, “The 18th article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.”
In the next part of the series, on to Amendment 22, which dealt once more with the highest office in the land.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461, robbins@ slblaw.com and email@example.com.
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