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!

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This is the University of Texas at Austin.

South Mall UT Tower

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 to allow the country to operate efficiently; however, some were worried this empowerment would eventually lead to tyranny.

Because of this, a compromise had to be made 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 ten 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 focused on raising members of Congress.

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.

It means that if Congress votes to give itself a raise, it 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 the amendments dealing with free speech and the right to bear arms.

Gregory Watson

Congress began adding expiration dates to proposed amendments in the past century. 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 approve it again?

University of Texas sophomore Gregory Watson asked these same questions in 1982 when he was assigned 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 his grade for his essay.

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

Congress could not undo its 1789 approval because there was no expiration date. 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 sending letters to politicians to convince 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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