U.S. Constitutional Amendments: Definition, Summary & Order

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
There have been 27 amendments to the US Constitution. Some of them have been better ideas than others. Read about the end of slavery, the rights of women and why the police have to follow the law just like everybody else.

What Is An Amendment to the Constitution?

For a 225 year-old document, the Constitution (1789) hasn't done too badly. Somehow, a country of over 315 million people still uses it to guide their government and their lives. However, no one could have seen the future, and the founding fathers (but sadly no women) tried to see a way the Constitution could survive future and unforeseen problems.


Simply put, an amendment to the Constitution of the United States is a change to the Constitution. It is not an easy thing to do! An amendment must be proposed and then ratified by 2/3 of Congress in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, or by a constitutional convention called for by 2/3 of state legislatures (this has never happened). Then, 3/4 of the states (38/50), have to ratify the amendment. Sometimes there is a time limit, but usually there is not. The 27th and last amendment was proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1992!

The 27 Amendments and Why Were They Made

Bill of Rights

Even though the first 10 Amendments cover some of the most important rights of American citizens, they were not put into the Constitution until 1791. Everyone make mistakes.

1st Amendment

No law establishing a religion, or stopping religious expression, freedom of expression (speech and the press) or getting together to peacefully meet. You have the right to ask the government to fix problems.

WHY? Without it, you would not have any freedom of expression.

2nd Amendment

The right to keep and carry weapons.

WHY? The British took away American guns. The 2nd Amendment affirms the right of citizens to protect themselves and to rise up against an unfair and oppressive government.

3rd Amendment

No soldiers in your house without permission, and never in peacetime.

WHY? The colonialists were sick and tired of British soldiers using their homes as a hotel (and the right to privacy).

4th Amendment

No unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant from a neutral judge.

WHY? The authorities could stop and search you whenever and wherever they pleased, including in your own home. This amendment protects people from unfair and unjust arrests. However, in public situations like an airplane, law enforcement still can make arrests.

5th Amendment

No one can be forced to testify against himself in court. You cannot be tried twice when your life is on the line. You cannot be punished unless the government has followed the law.

6th Amendment

The right to a fair and speedy public trial by jury, the right to be represented by a lawyer, and to see and question the person accusing you of a crime.

WHY? Imprisonment is forever. Really, your trial is next week, we promise!

7th Amendment

The right to trial by jury.

8th Amendment

No excessive fines and or bail, or cruel and unusual punishment.

WHY? No torture and no impossible fines: 1 gadzillion USD, please!

9th Amendment

Protects rights not said in the Constitution.

WHY? There are so many rights that the Constitution could not hold them all. If they are not in the Constitution, it doesn't mean they are not your rights.

10th Amendment

The federal government only has those powers given to it by the states or the people through the Constitution.

WHY? Any rights that are not given to the government by the Constitution belong to the people.

Amendments from 1795 - Present

11th Amendment

States are protected from lawsuits by out-of-state citizens and foreigners not living within the states. (1795)

WHY? States' right.

12th Amendment

New presidential election rules. (1804) Voters use one ballot to choose both a president and vice president.

WHY? Before this, voting was confusing, and you might end with the president from one party and the vice-president from another. After this, results had to usually listen to the popular vote.

13th Amendment

Abolishes slavery. (1865)

14th Amendment

Who is a citizen: Privileges or Immunities Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause. (1868)

WHY? All citizens, including former slaves, guaranteed the same rights and protections under the law.

15th Amendment

No denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (1870)

WHY? Former slaves were denied the right to vote.

16th Amendment

Congress can collect income tax without having to give the money back to the states. (1913)

WHY? The federal government needed regular source of money.

17th Amendment

Direct election of United States Senators by popular vote. (1913)

WHY? Before this, senators were chosen by state legislatures.

18th Amendment

Prohibited the manufacturing or sale of alcohol within the United States. ( Ratified in 1919, but repealed 1933)

WHY? Some people thought alcohol was destroying the United States.

19th Amendment

No denial of the right to vote based on sex. (1920)

WHY? Women can vote!

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