Today is Constitution Day, the anniversary of the day when the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention concluded. The delegates signed their name to the document and from there sent the document to states to be ratified.
On June 21, 1788, the constitution was officially ratified by New Hampshire.
Some of the states voted to ratify the Constitution contingent on the creation of a Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights was introduced in the first Congress by James Madison. He originally proposed 12 amendments, and ten of them were ratified not long after.
However, one of the proposed amendments was only approved by nine states and sat in legislative limbo for two centuries. The amendment stated that Congress could not vote to give its members a pay raise in their current term. The raise would have to be approved in the preceding Congressional term.
The ratification process sat dormant, the amendment all but forgotten, until 1982, when a college student had to write an essay for his American Government class.
The Paper That Changed Everything
In 1982, Gregory Watson was a 19-year-old college sophomore at the University of Texas. He was tasked with writing a paper about a government process. He originally intended to write a paper about the “Equal Rights Amendment” that failed to be ratified by the 3/4th of the states required to amend the Constitution.
However, during his research, he came across a book in the campus library that profiled proposed amendments to the Constitution that were sent to the states but were never ratified. One of the proposed amendments caught his eye.
In an interview with NPR years later, Watson said, “I’ll never forget this as long as I live. I pull out a book that has within it a chapter of amendments that Congress has sent to the state legislatures, but which not enough state legislatures approved in order to become part of the Constitution. And this one just jumped right out of me.”
The unratified amendment read as follows:
“No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect until an election of representatives shall have intervened.”
There was no time limit placed on the amendment to be passed. Nine states had already approved the amendment back in the 1700s. That meant that the remaining states could still vote to ratify the amendment and be added to the original nine.
Watson was blown away by the revelation and decided to write a paper on the subject. He was proud of his work, but his professor wasn’t as impressed and graded him harshly. She gave him a “C” on the report.
Watson appealed his grade to his professor, but to no avail.
His professor, Sharon Waite, told NPR, “I kind of glanced at it, but I didn’t see anything that was particularly outstanding about it and I thought the C was probably fine.”
Instead of being discouraged, Watson turned his disappointment into positive action. He said, “I’m going to get that thing ratified.”
NPR reported, “He wrote letters to members of Congress to see whether they knew of anyone in their home states who might be willing to push the amendment in the state legislature. When he did get a response, it was generally negative…mostly, he got no response at all.
But then, a Senator from Maine named William Cohen did get back to him. Cohen, who later served as Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, passed the amendment on to someone back home, who passed it on to someone else, who introduced it in the Maine Legislature. In 1983, state lawmakers passed it.”
Watson’s lobbying effort caught fire and by 1992, 35 states had passed the amendment.
Then on May 7, 1992, Michigan became the 38th state to vote in the affirmative, and the amendment was officially adopted.
Watson accomplished his goal. He had helped change the U.S. Constitution.
His efforts helped to produce the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution. He had single-handedly carried on the legacy of James Madison.
He had done the impossible and turned a C grade into a Constitutional Amendment.
Watson’s actions showed the true power of “We The People.” In America, one person has the opportunity to positively influence their government.
It is a story that should be taught in every American History class in America.
Gregory Watson finally got his well -deserved “A” thirty-five years later. In honor of his efforts, Professor Waite signed a form to officially change Watson’s to the one he deserved.
She said, “Goodness, he certainly proved he knew how to work the Constitution and what it meant and how to be politically active. So, yes, I think he deserves an A after that effort—A-plus!”
Because of its historical legacy, it was an A+ paper that was worthy of extra-credit.