Twenty-five years ago, the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified — nearly two centuries after it was written. The improbable story of how that happened starts with the Founding Fathers themselves and winds up at the University of Texas. And it's a heartening reminder of the power of individuals to make real change.
Let's back up to 1982. A 19-year-old college sophomore named Gregory Watson was taking a government class at UT Austin. For the class, he had to write a paper about a governmental process. So he went to the library and started poring over books about the U.S. Constitution — one of his favorite topics.
"I'll never forget this as long as I live," Watson says. "I pull 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."
The unratified amendment read as follows:
"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 raise Congress votes to give itself can't take effect until after the next election, so constituents can decide whether they deserve it.
The amendment had been proposed almost 200 years earlier, in 1789. It was written by James Madison and was intended to be one of the very first constitutional amendments, right along with the Bill of Rights.
But it didn't get passed by enough states at the time. To ratify an amendment, three-quarters of state legislatures need to approve it.
And it turned out that the 200-year-old proposed amendment didn't have a deadline.
Watson was intrigued. He decided to write his paper about the amendment and argue that it was still alive and could be ratified. He turned it in to the teaching assistant for his class — and got it back with a C.
Watson was baffled. He was sure the paper was better than a C.
He appealed the grade to the professor, Sharon Waite.
"I kind of glanced at it, but I didn't see anything that was particularly outstanding about it and I thought the C was probably fine," she recalls.
Most people would have just taken the grade and left it at that. Gregory Watson is not most people.
"So I thought right then and there, 'I'm going to get that thing ratified.' "
He needed 38 state legislatures to approve the amendment. Nine states had already approved it, mostly back in the 1790s, so that meant Watson needed 29 more states to ratify it. He wrote letters to members of Congress to see whether they knew of anyone in their home states who might be willing to push the amendment in the state legislature. When he did get a response, it was generally negative. Some said the amendment was too old; some said they just didn't know anyone who'd be willing to help. Mostly, he got no response at all.
But then, a senator from Maine named William Cohen did get back to him. Cohen, who later served as secretary of defense under President Clinton, passed the amendment on to someone back home, who passed it on to someone else, who introduced it in the Maine Legislature. In 1983, state lawmakers passed it.
"So I'm thinking, 'my first success story; this can actually be done'," Watson says.
Feeling emboldened, he started writing to every state lawmaker he thought might be willing to help. He wrote dozens of letters. After a while, it started to work. Colorado passed the amendment in 1984. And then it picked up momentum. Five states in 1985. Three each in 1986, 1987 and 1988. Seven states in 1989 alone.
By 1992, 35 states had passed the amendment. Only three more to go. After 10 years of letter-writing, sweet-talking and shaming, Watson was within reach of his goal.
On May 5, 1992, both Alabama and Missouri passed the amendment. And on May 7, as Watson listened on the phone, the Michigan House of Representatives put it over the top.
His quest was finally over: More than 200 years after it was written, the 27th Amendment was finally ratified.
"I did treat myself to a nice dinner at an expensive restaurant," Watson recalls.
What's so striking about this story is the sheer degree of difficulty of what Gregory Watson did. Amending the Constitution is — by design — incredibly hard to do. In fact, the 27th Amendment is still the most recent amendment to the Constitution.
It turns out that one person really can make a difference.
"I wanted to demonstrate that one extremely dedicated, extremely vocal energetic person could push this through," Watson says. "I think I demonstrated that."
He has kept pursuing these kinds of quests since then. In 1995, he realized Mississippi had never ratified the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. So he pushed that state's Legislature to do it — and it worked. It was symbolic, but it meant something. (Due to a filing error, the ratification was not officially recorded until 2013 ... but that's another story.)
Making the grade
Back in 1992, as Watson celebrated his achievement with the 27th Amendment, things weren't going as well for his former professor, Sharon Waite. She had moved from Austin back to South Texas in the 10 years since Watson was her student. She tried to get a teaching job down there, with no luck.
"I was feeling sorry I'd spent all those years studying and you know ... nothing!" Waite says.
She would look at all the papers and books and stuff she'd collected over the years getting her master's degree and her doctorate and wondered, "What was it all for?"
Until one day, she got a phone call from someone writing a book about constitutional amendments.
"They said, 'Well did you teach at UT Austin in the early '80s?' and I said, 'Yes I did,' " Waite says. "And then they asked, 'Did you know that one of your students, Gregory Watson, pursued getting this constitutional amendment passed because you gave him a bad grade?' "
Waite was blown away. And in that moment, she felt redeemed.
"Many people have said you never know what kind of effect you're going to have on other people and on the world. And now I'm in my 70s, I've come to believe that's very, very true. And this is when it really hit me because I thought to myself, 'You have, just by making this fellow a grade he didn't like, affected the U.S. Constitution more than any of your fellow professors ever thought about it, and how ironic is that?'"
And with the benefit of hindsight, Waite says, Watson clearly doesn't deserve that C she gave him.
"Goodness, he certainly proved he knew how to work the Constitution and what it meant and how to be politically active," she says. "So, yes, I think he deserves an A after that effort — A-plus!"
And that's exactly what happened.
On March 1, Waite signed a form to officially change Watson's grade. Thirty-five years after Gregory Watson wrote his paper, he finally got his C changed to an A.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.