21 Things You May Not Know About the U.S. Constitution

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The Constitution of the United States is only 4543 words—7762 if you count the Amendments—and originally fit on just four large sheets of paper. But it packs a wallop. Not only is it the oldest written national constitution in the world, it's arguably the most influential in the world, too.

1. MAKING THE CONSTITUTION WAS A SWEATY, SMELLY AFFAIR.

Independence Hall
Eric Baradat, AFP/Getty Images

The Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 over the course of a humid summer. The windows of Independence Hall were shut to discourage eavesdroppers, and many delegates, who were mostly from out of town, wore and re-wore the same thick woolen garments day after day. Many framers stayed at the same boarding houses and shared rooms that, we can only imagine, reeked with a distinct eau du freedom.

2. THE INTENT WAS NOT TO CREATE A NEW CONSTITUTION.

Articles of Confederation
The U.S. National Archives (Articles of Confederation), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The delegates didn't come to Philadelphia intending to write a new constitution—they came to tweak the Articles of Confederation, the original constitution written in 1777 (and later ratified in 1781). But after some deliberation, the attendees realized that the Articles were a mess and needed to be scrapped. One of the primary motivations for starting from scratch was money: At the time, the central government was mired in debt from the Revolutionary War. While the federal government could request money from the states, states were under no obligation to pay. A new constitution could change this.

3. SOME FRAMERS WANTED TO LIMIT THE SIZE OF THE ARMY.

Continental Army
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According to Jonathan Elliot's Debates, Elbridge Gerry was concerned that "there was no check here against standing armies in time of peace" and proposed that "there should not be kept up in time of peace more than __ thousand troops" (with Elliot saying Gerry wanted the blank filled with two or three). According to ConstitutionFacts [PDF], "George Washington sarcastically agreed with this proposal as long as a stipulation was added that no invading army could number more than 3000 troops!"

4. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN HAD TO BE CARRIED TO THE CONVENTION.

Franklin's Sedan Chair
Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At the time, an 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin was in awful pain. He had gout and could barely stand. Instead of walking, he arrived at Independence Hall on at least the first couple of days carried by four prisoners from the Walnut Street jail, who ferried him around the city in a sedan chair.

5. AMERICA'S FARMERS WERE WOEFULLY MISREPRESENTED.

Painting of a farmer
Winslow Homer, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention, 34 were lawyers. Nearly all of them had previously held some kind of public office. This, of course, did not reflect the American electorate, a country of farmers: While 22 out of the 55 derived the majority of their income from farming, only one delegate, Georgia's William Few, in any way represented farmer's interests, having been born into a yeoman farming family. But even Few was a lawyer and politician by this time.

6. THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE MAY HAVE BEEN JUST AS CONTROVERSIAL THEN AS IT IS NOW.

Drawing of the Electoral College
The Electoral Commission holding a secret session by candle-light, on the Louisiana question, February 16th
Library of Congress

It took 60 separate ballots for the delegates to finally accept the Electoral College. Proponents believed it was the best compromise between those who wanted to choose the president via direct popular vote and those who wanted a Congressional vote. Since then, there have been more than 500 propositions to reform or eliminate the Electoral College.

7. WRITING IT COST $30.

Constitution Scroll
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You know names like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but let's give credit to two lesser known—but equally important—figures: Gouverneur Morris I, who wrote the Preamble to the Constitution and is responsible for much of the document's wording; and Jacob Shallus, the Pennsylvania General Assembly assistant clerk who actually held the pen. (Shallus was paid $30—about $900 today—for lending his penmanship.)

8. IT'S RIDDLED WITH PECULIAR SPELLINGS.

Constitution being rolled out on the steps
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

When the Constitution was written, English spellings had not yet been standardized. As a result, the document contains odd spellings, British spellings, and peculiar words that might look odd today but were acceptable at the time. In the list of signatories, the word Pennsylvania is missing an "n." In Article 1 Section 10, there's an errant apostrophe attached to what should be its. There are spellings such as defence or labour and even "chuse" for choose.

9. NOT EVERY FOUNDING FATHER SIGNED IT.

portrait of Patrick Henry
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson never signed the Constitution because he was busy serving as the Minister to France in Paris. John Adams, who was serving as Minister to Great Britain, never signed it either. A handful of founding fathers, such as George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and Edmund Randolph were present for the signing but refused to touch the document. Others such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and John Hancock—whose signature was such a standout on the Declaration of Independence—simply did not attend. (When Henry was asked why he declined to attend the convention, he supposedly said, "I smelt a rat.")

10. RHODE ISLAND HATED THE CONSTITUTION SO MUCH IT ALMOST STARTED A CIVIL WAR.

Rhode Island Revolution Memorial
Eva Hambach, AFP/Getty Images

Eleven of 13 states ratified the Constitution in the months after signing, and North Carolina finally signed in November 1789. That left Rhode Island—which never sent a delegate to the Constitutional Convention—as the last holdout. The state opposed a strong central government and had to make 11 attempts to ratify the Constitution. (Some votes weren't even close: One popular referendum finished with 237 votes "for" and 2945 votes "against.") The vitriol was so intense that, when a group of Rhode Island federalists began planning an ox roast to celebrate the document in 1788, an army of 1000 angry armed men assembled to stop it. The event nearly sparked a civil war.

11. THE FIRST AMENDMENT WAS ORIGINALLY THIRD.

Bill of Rights
The U.S. National Archives (The U.S. Bill of Rights), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the Bill of Rights was drafted, James Madison proposed 19 amendments (the House sent 17 of them to the Senate, which were consolidated into the 12 amendments that went to the states). The first two, however, were not ratified immediately. The first amendment set "out a detailed formula for the number of House members, based on each decennial census," writes Andrew Glass at Politico. "Scholars have calculated that had the amendment, which is still pending, been adopted, today's House would have either 800 or 5000 representatives." (It currently has 435.) The second amendment regulated Congressional compensation. That amendment was not ratified for another 203 years: Originally the second, it became the 27th amendment.

12. THE FIRST NATIONAL THANKSGIVING WAS ESTABLISHED LARGELY TO THANK GOD FOR THE NEW CONSTITUTION.

Washington Thanksgiving Proclamation
Timothy Clary, AFP/Getty Images

In 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation calling for "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness." The date was set for Thursday, November 26, 1789.

13. FOR DECADES, IT WAS UNCLEAR IF THE VICE PRESIDENT WAS SUPPOSED TO SUCCEED THE PRESIDENT.

portrait of John Tyler
National Archives, Newsmakers/Getty Images

According to Article II, Section 1: "In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President." While this section states that the Vice President inherits the powers and duties of the presidency, it does not state that he or she should assume the office of the presidency itself (one 19th century Senator made the analogy "If a colonel was shot in battle, the next officer in rank took command of the regiment, but he did not thereby become a colonel"). But when President William Henry Harrison became the first president to die while in office in 1841, Vice President John Tyler began referring to himself as the President, and the convention stuck. However, this succession wasn't made official until 1967 when the 25th Amendment was ratified.

14. THE 25TH AMENDMENT HAS BEEN INVOKED THREE(ISH) TIMES (ALL FOR COLON TREATMENTS).

George W. Bush leaves for Colonoscopy
Stefan Zaklin, Getty Images

Section 3 of the 25th Amendment allows the President to hand power over to the Vice President if he feels "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." President George W. Bush invoked the amendment twice—making Dick Cheney "Acting President"—while he was undergoing colonoscopies.

But when President Ronald Reagan had polyps removed from his colon in 1985, he and his legal team were unclear about the amendment's "application to such brief and temporary periods of incapacity" and did not officially invoke it. However, his staff still followed all the rules precisely in order to temporarily hand his duties to George H.W. Bush, meaning most agree that he did essentially invoke Section 3.

15. THE CONSTITUTION PROHIBITS STATES FROM CHANGING THE STRUCTURE OF THEIR GOVERNMENT.

Colorful map of the U.S.A.
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According to Article IV, Section 4, also called the Guarantee Clause, the "United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government." In other words, if a state ever attempted to radically change its structure of government—if Vermont wanted to become a monarchy, or if Oklahoma decided to give feudalism a test drive, or if Delaware changed to a full-blown dictatorship—these changes would be considered unconstitutional.

16. THE 13TH AMENDMENT HAS A CONTROVERSIAL CLAUSE.

Prison Laborer mowing a lawn
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The 13th amendment, ratified after the Civil War in 1865, states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States." This middle clause has stoked controversy. Currently, the average daily minimum wage of an incarcerated worker is $0.86. Some states pay prisoners nothing at all for non-industry work.

17. YOU DON'T ALWAYS KNOW HOW YOUR CONGRESSPERSON VOTES.

Congress in session
Alex Wong, Getty Images

According to Article I, Section 5, a roll call vote needs to happen when only one-fifth of those present for the vote request it (a roll call vote records each congressperson's name and vote, while a voice vote does not record names or number of votes). True anonymous voting, of course, is very rare, and common practice is for politicians to keep their constituents informed on their voting record.

18. THANKS TO THE CONSTITUTION, YOU COULD BECOME A STATE-SANCTIONED PIRATE.

Pirate Ship on the ocean
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Article I, Section 8 gives the government the authority "to define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas." It also allows the government to grant letters of marque—that is, to grant people permission to become privateers. Such a license could allow you to capture, steal, or spy on ships of America's foreign enemies! (Unfortunately, the fantastic rumor that the Goodyear Blimp received a letter of marque during World War II to hunt Japanese submarines off California is not true.)

19. MUCH OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS DIDN'T APPLY TO THE STATES UNTIL THE MID-20TH CENTURY.

First Amendment engraved on a stone
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When the Bill of Rights was adopted, it only applied to the federal government. The part of the Fifth Amendment, for example, which prevents the federal government from convicting a person twice for the same crime (what's called double jeopardy), was only enforceable in some states until 1969. As Richard Labunski writes in the Chicago Tribune, it took a long time for nearly every other amendment to apply to states: "freedom of speech (1925), freedom of the press (1931), freedom of religion (1947) … the right to a jury trial (1968) … and prohibition against excessive bail (1971)."

20. THE CONSTITUTION SUPPOSEDLY CONTAINS A LOOPHOLE THAT COULD ALLOW A DICTATORSHIP TO FLOURISH.

Democracy/Dictatorship Street Sign
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In the 1940s, European intellectuals fled Europe for America. Kurt Gödel, an Austrian philosopher, was among the refugees. During Gödel's citizenship interview, he casually mentioned to the immigration official that he had discovered a loophole in the Constitution that could open a pathway for a dictator. However, he never explained what that pathway was. (Some believe that Gödel's loophole has something to do with Article V, which lays out how the Constitution can be amended. Technically, if Article V was used on itself—that is, if it were amended to make changing the Constitution easier—the entire document could be easily rewritten.)

21. THE CHANCE OF AN AMENDMENT PASSING IS BASICALLY ZERO.

Amending an Amendment
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The chance of Article V being changed, however, is slim. Over the past two centuries, more than 11,600 amendments to the Constitution have been proposed. Of those, only 33 have been sent to the states for ratification. Of those, only 27 have been approved. Rounded down, the percent chance of getting an amendment passed is, in fact, zero.

Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court—thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so, either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age, no doubt infuriating the conservative presidents that appointed them.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Meanwhile, the oldest justice now on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is currently 85 and kicking. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

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