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The United States Bill of Rights

How do you change the Constitution?

Over the years since the Bill of Rights in 1791, Americans have not changed their Constitution very much. It’s pretty hard to do: you have to get two-thirds of the House and the Senate to agree, and then you have to get 3/4 of the state legislatures to agree too, usually within seven years.

A simplified Constitution
What is the Bill of Rights?
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But there have been some changes. Some things have been changed to make the government work better. Others have been changed to give more power to ordinary people, or to people who were excluded before – people of color and women, especially. Amendments tend to come in clumps. Here’s a list of the changes – the amendments – in easier words.

Early Amendments

Bill of Rights (first ten amendments)

11th Amendment (1794): You can’t sue a state you don’t live in.

12th Amendment (1803): The Electoral College votes separately for Presidents and Vice Presidents.

Civil War Amendments

13th Amendment (1865): Slavery is illegal, except that you can force people to work as punishment for a crime.

14th Amendment (1866): If you were born in the United States or one of your parents is a citizen of the United States, then you’re a citizen too, even if you were enslaved before the Civil War.

African-American slavery
The Civil War

15th Amendment (1869): Men can vote regardless of skin color, even if they were enslaved before the war.

World War I Amendments

16th Amendment (1909): Congress can raise money by charging an income tax.

17th Amendment (1912): You vote directly for your Senators, instead of state legislatures electing the two Senators from each state.

18th Amendment (1917): Made it illegal to make or sell alcohol – whiskey, beerwine, hard cider, etc. – anywhere in the United States. We call this Prohibition.

19th Amendment (1919): Women can vote just like men can.

Depression and World War II Amendments

20th Amendment (1932): Changes the date when Presidents take office to January 20th, and changes the date for Senators and Representatives to January 3rd.

21st Amendment (1933): Makes alcohol legal again (ends Prohibition).

22nd Amendment (1951): You can only be President for two terms – 8 years (after Franklin Roosevelt got four terms).

American government in the 1900s

Civil Rights Amendments

23rd Amendment (1961): People living in Washington, D.C. get to vote for President too. They’re mostly black people.

24th Amendment (1964): You can vote without paying any sort of tax or fee (so poor people, and especially poor black people, can vote).

25th Amendment (1967): Tells what to do if the President can’t do the job because he or she is too sick, or if something happens to the Vice President.

26th Amendment (1971): You can vote when you turn 18 instead of having to wait to be 21. Old enough to go fight wars, old enough to vote on those wars.

Recent Amendment

27th Amendment (1992): If the House or Senate votes to raise their own salaries, they don’t actually get paid more until after the next election.

Learn by doing: what is one way the Bill of Rights affects you?
More Constitutional Amendments
More about the Constitution

Bibliography and further reading about the Constitution:


Constitution History
The Declaration of Independence
The Iroquois
The Revolutionary War
American History home