“Write a paper about the governmental process.”
20-year-old Gregory Watson, one in a sea of 300 faces in the 1982 spring semester American Government survey class at the University of Texas, read through his syllabus and considered his final assignment. The prompt was broad enough — that was for sure. He figured he’d take a look at the deadline extension of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was set to expire right around the end of the semester. He found a book in the library that listed all the proposed-but-not-ratified amendments to the US Constitution. One in particular caught his interest.
In 1789, when the ink of the Constitution itself was still drying, Representative (later to become the 4th President) James Madison was concerned about the fact that senators and representatives could vote pay raises for themselves without any oversight. He lobbied to get a clause put into the Constitution itself, but failed — so he decided to take the long way around. He proposed a constitutional amendment that simply read, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” In other words, any salary changes wouldn’t take effect until after the next election (so the American public could have a say in the process). Seven states ratified the amendment, two short of the necessary two-thirds, and then the movement lost steam. However, there was one peculiar characteristic of this particular amendment: James Madison didn’t write in an expiration date. Thus, at least theoretically, it was still eligible for ratification, even if the necessary “two-thirds” was a lot bigger in the 20th century than it was in the 18th.
Gregory had his topic. He dove in with relish, seeking to show that this amendment was both viable and valid in late 20th-century America. He crafted his argument, supported his assertions — and ended up getting a C on the paper. His professor said the idea was “too unrealistic.” Gregory was furious. He quit school, found work as a staff member in the Texas legislature, and started his letter-writing campaign. Armed with little more than a typewriter, he spent long evenings crafting letters to representatives and senators in states that had not yet passed the amendment. Battling (often uphill) against bureaucracy and political inertia, he remained tenacious. Even after gaining key political partnerships and taking advantage of souring popular opinion against US Congressional conduct, he would still have to put in a grueling decade’s worth of work before enjoying the fruits of his labor. But that work did eventually pay off — on May 7, 1992, almost 203 years after John Madison’s initial proposal, Michigan became the 38th state to add its approval to what became the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
All because one seemingly insignificant undergrad took the initiative and followed his passion.
- Citizen Democracy: Political Activists in a Cynical Age, Stephen E. Frantzich (Gregory Watson’s story is Chapter 1)
- Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Parker Palmer
- Liberty: Thriving and Civic Engagement Among America’s Youth, Richard M. Lerner
- The One-Hour Activist: The 15 Most Powerful Actions You Can Take to Fight for the Issues and Candidates You Care About, Christopher Kush
- Citizen Governance: Leading American Communities into the 21st Century, Richard C. Box
- The Founding Fathers’ Guide to the Constitution, Brion McClanahan
- The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, Peter Linebaugh
- The Limits of Constitutional Democracy, Jeffrey K. Tulis
Editor’s Note: Constitution Day is September 17, 2014! Check out our display in the front of the library for more books and films about the Constitution.