The 27th Amendment

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13802

The 27th Amendment to the Constitution exists because a sophomore in college discovered something about the Bill of Rights that everyone else had forgotten.


Government, History, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


This is the University of Texas at Austin:

South Mall UT Tower

Image by Guðsþegn, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

While it looks like any other university, one of the students here monumentally changed the U.S. Constitution.

  • So, what happened here?

The Bill of Rights

bill of rights with flag

For many of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution was dangerous.

It had to concentrate a large amount of power in the federal government in order to allow the country to operate efficiently; however, some were worried this empowerment was going to eventually lead to tyranny.

Because of this, a compromise had to be made in order to get the Constitution ratified. It was agreed that a Bill of Rights would be created immediately to secure individual rights and stop the expansion of the federal government.

You may know the Bill of Rights as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution; however, there were originally 12.

Two of the proposed amendments did not make it into the Constitution.

Congressional Pay Amendment

pay raise ahead

One of these two unratified amendments was focused on giving members of Congress raises.

Read it here:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

What it means is that, if Congress votes to give itself a raise, that raise will not go into effect until after the next Congressional election. This would allow the American people to vote out any Congress members who tried to give themselves large raises.

Although this amendment did pass through Congress in 1789, it was not ratified by the states. This is likely because it was not seen as important as those amendments dealing with things like free speech and the right to bear arms.

Gregory Watson

In the past century, Congress began adding expiration dates to proposed amendments. Earlier amendments however, like this one, did not have one.

  • So where did that leave the future of this amendment?
  • Could it be "revived" if states started to ratify it?
  • Did Congress have to give approval again?

University of Texas sophomore Gregory Watson asked these same questions in 1982 when he was given an assignment to write a paper on a government process. He discovered the congressional pay amendment and argued it could still be ratified because it had no time limit.

As you listen to Gregory Watson's story in the video below, pay attention to the grade he got for his essay.

How One Man Changed the US Constitution from NoodleLatte:

After getting a C on his essay, Watson decided to get three-quarters of the states to ratify the amendment.

Because there was no expiration date on it, Congress could not undo its 1789 approval. The fate of the amendment was solely in the hands of state legislatures.

c grade

Since its inception, the congressional pay amendment had been ratified by nine states; that meant Watson needed to get 29 more.

Take a look at this timeline map and identify how many states Watson managed to convince to ratify the amendment:

27th amendment map

Watson began by simply sending letters to politicians to start convincing states to ratify. One by one, through decades of work, he managed to amend the Constitution of the United States.

Keep going to the Got It? section to understand why this amendment and the journey it took are so significant.

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