Story of Our Constitution - E. M. Tappan

The Twentieth Century Amendments

During the years between 1909 and 1919, four Amendments were passed, as different in character as any four Amendments could possibly be. They were concerning the right of Government to impose an income tax; the election of Senators; prohibition; and woman suffrage.

The income tax was brought about because the expenses of the Government had increased and more money was needed to pay the bills. In 1894 Government had imposed a tax of two percent on the excess of all incomes above $4,000. Whether this was according to the Constitution or not was a question, and the subject was brought before the Supreme Court.

The Constitution declared that all direct taxes must be apportioned among the States according to the number of their citizens respectively. This tax did not deal with States, but with individual citizens, and it might easily happen that a State with a few wealthy citizens would pay larger taxes than a State with many but poorer citizens. The Court decided that this was contrary to the Constitution.

The matter of an income tax affected so large a portion of the citizens that it was discussed by everybody. "It is unfair," some declared, "because it throws a heavy burden upon a small class." "Burdens should be borne by those who are best able," was retorted. "To exempt a certain amount of income for all is not fair," said some, "for a dollar bill will buy more food and pay house rent longer in some parts of the country than in others." "Then, too, the Government will receive the largest returns from places where the living expenses are heaviest." "Is it fair to tax thrift and economy?" queried some. "Thrift and economy without the protection of a good Government would amount to little," said others.

So the people talked, some with good arguments, and some with poor; but at length, in July, 1909, Congress passed the Sixteenth Amendment, giving Government the right to impose such a tax. It went into power in 1913, and a law for an income tax was promptly passed.

According to the Constitution, United States Senators were to be elected by the legislatures of their respective States, but many persons had come to believe that it would be better for them to be elected directly by the people.

These persons argued as follows: It is much easier to make the power of money and influence felt among the few members of a legislature than among the whole number of citizens of a State. The party in power elects the legislature, and therefore a man belonging to the opposing party loses his vote for Senators. In a State where the two parties are nearly equally divided, a party only slightly in the majority elects the Senators; that is, the deciding power is in the hands of a very few persons, whose vote might perhaps be easily swung to the opposing side. There is sometimes a deadlock in a legislature, and this would be impossible with a direct vote.

Those who were satisfied with their present manner of electing replied: If the people of a State as a whole can elect honorable Senators, there is no reason why they cannot elect honorable legislators. It is not good to weaken the legislature by taking responsibility from it. As to any possible deadlocks, these could easily be prevented if the law would permit elections by plurality rather than by majority. Another point is that some of the men who would best serve the country as Senators would refuse to seek to win the position by entering a political campaign.

So they argued, but when the question came before Congress for a vote, an Amendment in favor of the newly proposed method was passed, and in 1913 it became the law of the land.

In 1914 the World War broke out, and soon there was great need of conservation of food. Cereals, molasses, etc., were valuable foods, and in 1917 an Act of Congress forbade their being used to manufacture liquor. Some of the States were already "dry," and a few months later, another Act forbade carrying liquor into any dry State.

Those who for many years had been working for prohibition now felt so encouraged that many believed no more spirits would ever be manufactured in the United States for drinking purposes. Near the end of 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in Congress, forbidding the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquor in any territory subject to the rule of the United States.

This Act was now given to the States for ratification. When January 29, 1919, had come, thirty-six States had ratified the Amendment. Ohio was the thirty-sixth, and at the November elections the people of that State repudiated the vote of their legislature. Luckily for the prohibition Amendment, several other States had ratified it meanwhile, and one year later it became a part of the law of the land. Early in that same year Rhode Island, New Jersey, and a number of brewers and distillers united in suits to test the validity of the Amendment; but it was upheld by the Supreme Court as being according to the Constitution.

Up to 1920 Government had been in great degree in the hands of men; but long before that date there was much questioning as to why women should not have an equal share in making the laws by which they were governed. As early as 1848 a convention met to discuss votes for women, and from that time the subject increased in importance. One association was formed to work for suffrage through State Amendments, and another to try to secure it through a national Amendment to the Constitution.

For a long time it seemed almost hopeless to think of securing a national Amendment, but State Amendments were of course quite a different matter, and the number of "Woman-Suffrage States "increased from the four of 1909 to the eleven of 1917. Numerous other States had also granted partial suffrage to women, and in May, 1919, the House of Representatives passed an Act in favor of full suffrage. Two weeks later this Act, the Nineteenth Amendment, was also passed by the Senate.

The Amendment was put into the hands of the States for ratification. Then came bitter contests. Some States promptly and positively refused to ratify. Some called in vain special sessions of their legislatures to vote on the Amendment. Five refused to vote either for or against it. The year 1920 opened, the year of a presidential election. There was need of haste if the women's vote was to be counted, and in the early months of the year those who favored the Amendment worked zealously. They were successful. A sufficient number of States voted for ratification, and some weeks before the election, the Nineteenth Amendment was proclaimed as law throughout the United States.

So stands the Constitution, a century and a half since the little group of patriots came together in Independence Hall to think and plan for the America of to-day. There have been additions and alterations, for "New occasions teach new duties,"  but we could ask nothing better than that these changes shall have been in accord with the marvellous paper sent forth to the expectant people who with courage and determination had fought their way to Statehood and Union.