The Bad Grade That Changed The U.S. Constitution
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's been 25 years since the last time the Constitution was amended. If you were around then, you might not even have heard about it, but it was a remarkable and improbable feat of civic activism. Matt Largey of member station KUT in Austin tells the story.
MATT LARGEY, BYLINE: This is a story about how one regular person can move the machinery of government by sheer force of will. That person was Gregory Watson. And it all started when he was a college student back in the spring of 1982.
GREGORY WATSON: I was taking a class here at the University of Texas. It was a government class. And the professor's name was Sharon Waite.
SHARON WAITE: I'm Sharon Waite.
WATSON: And she gave us an assignment of write a paper about a governmental process.
WAITE: And since I had concentrated on the Constitution and the amendments, many students chose to write on the Constitution and the amendments.
LARGEY: Before we go any further, I want to take a second to do some remedial civics. It's pretty hard to amend the Constitution. First, you have to get two-thirds of Congress to approve the amendment. Then, you need three-quarters of state legislatures to ratify it, 38 states in all.
That's a high bar, so lots of amendments get proposed but never get ratified, which brings us back to Gregory Watson in 1982 trying to figure out what he's going to write that paper on.
WATSON: I pulled 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 at me.
LARGEY: It said...
WATSON: No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect until an election of representatives shall have intervened.
LARGEY: Which basically meant any pay raise Congress gives itself can't take effect until after the next election, so constituents can decide whether they deserve it.
WATSON: I thought, well, that's - that makes perfect sense. I see great logic in that.
LARGEY: This amendment was written almost 200 years earlier in 1789. It just didn't get passed by enough states. But here's the thing, it didn't have a deadline. So Gregory wrote a paper about how this amendment could still be ratified.
WATSON: And did all this wonderful work and turn it into the TA and get it back with a great big C on it. So I appealed it to the professor.
WAITE: And I kind of glanced at it, but I really didn't see anything that was particularly outstanding about it. So I said, there it is, C it is.
LARGEY: You know, most people would have just taken the grade at that point - not Gregory.
WATSON: So I thought right then and there, I'm going to get that thing ratified.
LARGEY: The amendment had been passed by nine states already, most way back in the 1790s. But Gregory needed 38, so he started writing to lawmakers. He got plenty of rejections. Finally, the state legislature in Maine got interested.
WATSON: And in their 1983 session, they passed it. So I'm thinking my first success story, this can actually be done.
LARGEY: So Gregory got out his typewriter and started writing to every state lawmaker he could find, and it worked.
WATSON: The next year was 1984, and I was able to get Colorado to pass it - five ratifications in 1985. '87 was a good year. We got Connecticut, a big explosion of seven in 1989. I've got Georgia. I've got Louisiana. I've got West Virginia.
LARGEY: After 10 years of letter writing, sweet talking and shaming, 35 states had ratified the amendment.
WATSON: So 1992 rolls around, and I'm thinking three more states. That's all I need.
LARGEY: Alabama and Missouri both passed it on May 5, 1992.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED POLITICIAN #1: Mr. Speaker, on the passage of Senate Joint Resolution E...
LARGEY: And on May 7, the Michigan House of Representatives voted on the amendment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED POLITICIAN #2: The resolution's adopted.
LARGEY: After 10 years, his quest was finally over. More than 200 years after it was proposed, the 27th Amendment was in the Constitution.
WATSON: I did treat myself to a nice dinner at an expensive restaurant.
LARGEY: Meantime, his old professor, Sharon Waite, had no idea what Gregory had done. Then, one day in 1982, she got a phone call from someone writing a book about constitutional amendments.
WAITE: They said, did you know that one of your students, Gregory Watson, pursued getting this constitutional amendment passed because you gave him a bad grade?
LARGEY: Sharon was blown away.
WAITE: Hooray, I'm going to be a footnote to a footnote in history.
LARGEY: And with the benefit of hindsight, Sharon says, he clearly didn't deserve that C she gave him.
WAITE: 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.
LARGEY: And actually, that's exactly what happened. Just a couple weeks ago, Sharon signed a form to officially change Gregory's grade. So 35 years after he wrote that paper, he's finally turned that C into an A. For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey.
MCEVERS: This story was originally produced for Pop-Up Magazine.
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