The U.S.'s 20th, 21st, 22nd & 23rd Constitutional Amendments

Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education Administration.

By the mid-20th century, the United States had grown into a world superpower, but our Constitution was still being refined through amendments. In this lesson we'll learn about the 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd Amendments and the important issues they addressed.

The 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

The 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd Amendments address four important administrative issues related to term dates, alcohol, presidential term limits, and the District of Columbia. Some of these issues you may have assumed were addressed in the original Constitution, since they've become common knowledge today.

The 20th Amendment

On the surface, the 20th Amendment may not seem significant, but it did have important repercussions. It included six sections, but the last two were simply instructions as to how it would be implemented once ratified. The first four sections are where the substantive changes can be found.

In the first section, the dates on which new terms begin for members of Congress, the vice president, and the president were set. The terms for new members of Congress were designated to start on January 3 and the vice president's and president's term was set to begin on January 20. Prior to the 20th Amendment, there wasn't a specific date for newly elected officials to take office.

The dates that were being used would often result in long lame duck periods - the time between the day of election and the day someone left office. The loser of an election had less incentive to work effectively during these transitional periods, which is why they needed to be minimized. The 20th Amendment accomplished that. It also clarified provisions related to the vice president's succession if the newly elected president died between the election and the inauguration.

The 21st Amendment

The 21st Amendment simply repealed the 18th Amendment. In 1920, the 18th Amendment was ratified, which made the production and distribution of alcohol illegal. The unanticipated consequences of gangsters like Al Capone stepping in to profit off the illegal trade of alcohol, and the violent crime that went along with it, soon convinced the public and Congress that regulated alcohol was better than unregulated alcohol. The 21st Amendment was ratified in 1933, ending the 13-year, non-alcoholic period in the U.S. known as prohibition.

The 22nd Amendment

Most Americans can probably answer the question: 'How many terms can a U.S. president stay in office?' The answer is two four-year terms. But why is that the limit? It's not actually something the founding fathers put in the Constitution. However, the early presidents who could have sought a third term (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) all held themselves to two terms. It wasn't until 1944, when Franklin D. Roosevelt won his fourth election, that it became evident the two-term idea should be put into law.

Roosevelt passed away shortly into his fourth term, but the idea that he could have served 16 years frightened many in Congress. In 1947, Congress drafted and the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, which placed a two-term limit on the U.S. presidency. If a vice president takes office because of the death of the president and serves as president for more than two years, that counts as one of their terms, so they can only be elected for one more term.

The 23rd Amendment

It was about 13 years later that the next amendment was drafted and ratified. This time the issue was Washington, D.C., which had always been considered a U.S. 'district' and not a part of any state. This meant that the residents of Washington, D.C., had no vote in federal elections, which became a serious concern as the city grew to a major metropolis.

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