Formal vs. Informal Constitutional Changes: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 The Imperfect Constitution
  • 0:36 Formal Constitutional Changes
  • 2:18 Informal…
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The United States Constitution is made to be changed. In this lesson, we will discuss the various processes of changing the Constitution, both formally and informally.

The Imperfect Constitution

At its most basic, the United States is governed by a single document: the United States Constitution. The Constitution outlines the powers and privileges of the government and sets the basis for all of our other laws. The thing about the Constitution is that it's not perfect. And that's okay. The founding figures who wrote the document knew that as American society changed, the Constitution may need to change along with it. So, they made that possible. The Constitution can, in fact, be changed. But as for how it's changed, that's a bit more complex.

Formal Constitutional Changes

Let's start with the most obvious way to change the Constitution. Within this document itself is the procedure for formally making changes. This is found in Article V and outlines a two-step process. The first step is the proposal. A change to the Constitution can be proposed in Congress, and that proposal must be accepted by either two-thirds of both houses of Congress or by two-thirds of the state legislatures who can then call on Congress to hear the proposal. Once the proposal has been officially accepted, it goes on to step two: ratification. Basically, this just means that the formal proposal must be approved by three quarters of the state legislatures.

So, let's see what this process looks like. Currently, the Constitution has been changed 27 times. We call these formal changes amendments, so there are 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Let's look at the 19th Amendment, the one that gave women the right to vote and prohibited the denial of voting based on sex. It was first introduced in the Senate in 1878. For years it was debated before finally being rejected in 1887. In 1914, the proposed amendment came back in front of the Senate and again failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to make it a formal proposal. In 1918, while it received two thirds of the support of the House, it did not get enough votes in the Senate, and failed again. Finally, in 1919, the proposed amendment was approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. So it became a formal proposal to amend the Constitution and was sent to the states on June 4, 1919. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee's House of Representatives approved the amendment, giving it the majority it needed, and the 19th Amendment was formally added to the U.S. Constitution.

Informal Constitutional Changes

The Constitution was designed to be able to change with the times, that's why the amendment system is in place. However, there are actually other ways that the Constitution can be changed, and that's because, over time, our interpretations of it have changed. The ideas within the Constitution are subject to changing social, cultural, and political trends that can impact what the Constitution means to the American people.

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