The 11th Amendment

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13525

The 11th Amendment passed through Congress during George Washington's term, only a few years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights. So, what was it about?


Civics, United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What compelled the United States to add an amendment to the Constitution just years after ratifying the Bill of Rights?

It all goes back to the founding of the nation.

Articles of Confederation

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From 1777 to 1787, the United States operated with a very different form of government.

The Articles of Confederation were the predecessor to the Constitution and gave states the primary control. While this was not a very effective form of governance, it was created out of the Founding Fathers' fear of a central tyrannical authority.

The legacy of breaking away from the British Empire made convincing people to expand the federal government's power very difficult.

Passing the Constitution

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While the Constitution was not a perfect document even then, many of the Founding Fathers recognized it was a step in the right direction. This document concentrated authority upward into the federal government.

However, many politicians feared that there was too much power at the top, which is why the Bill of Rights was passed in 1791.

These were 10 amendments to the Constitution that laid out the federal government's power over the states, and anything not addressed in the amendments would automatically be the states' authority.

Chisolm v. Georgia (1793)

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Two years after the passage of the Bill of Rights, one of the first significant cases came before the Supreme Court.

In Chisholm v. Georgia, Alexander Chisolm from South Carolina sued the state of Georgia for over-payments he made for guns during the Revolutionary War that the state never repaid.

Because this lawsuit involved a state, it automatically went before the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in favor of Chisholm and said Georgia had to pay for the goods.

Representatives for the state of Georgie never showed up because they claimed sovereign immunity.

Sovereign immunity is a concept that dates back thousands of years and states that someone who enforces laws cannot be in trouble for those very same laws. This meant that a state could not be held accountable for state laws, only federal laws.

11th Amendment

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Congress grew concerned after this court case because the Supreme Court, a branch of the federal government, had made a state pay a private citizen money.

Many of the representatives and senators, who were already wary of the Constitution, feared this case would set a precedent granting the federal government more power over the state governments. And so Congress organized to pass the 11th Amendment, the first amendment after the Bill of Rights.

Read this excerpt from the 11th Amendment and think about its implications.

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

Essentially, sovereign immunity has been restored in cases involving state authority.

As you move on to the Got It? section, think about why the Chisolm v. Georgia ruling may have been seen as a slippery slope to many.

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