Authors discuss history, challenges of Constitution's amendments

Authors Wilfred Codrington, center, and John Kowal, right, join the Hauenstein Center's acting director Brent Holmes for a discussion on the U.S. Constitution.
Authors Wilfred Codrington, center, and John Kowal, right, join Hauenstein Center Acting Director Brent Holmes for a discussion on the U.S. Constitution.
Image Credit: Valerie Hendrickson

In 1899, after decades of political and social disharmony across the United States, the Washington Post published an editorial, imploring reformers to abandon hope of adding amendments to the U.S. Constitution. 

And yet, within a few decades, the Constitution would see a string of amendments ratified, reflecting the nation’s readiness to address societal issues.  

“By 1920, Americans added four very significant amendments that really grappled with the problems of the time,” said John Kowal, author and vice president of program initiatives at the Brennan Center. 

Kowal and his co-author Wilfred Codrington discussed the research into their book, “The People’s Constitution: 200 Years, 27 Amendments, and the Promise of a More Perfect Union,” during the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies’ annual Constitution Day celebration on September 22. 

The event, recorded by C-SPAN for broadcast at a later date, was also a part of the Talking Together series, a partnership among four Grand Valley institutions to promote civil discourse in the community. 

Wilfred Codrington talks with an audience member following the Hauenstein Center's panel discussion on the U.S. Constitution.
Wilfred Codrington talks with an audience member following the Hauenstein Center's panel discussion on the U.S. Constitution.
Valerie Hendrickson
Photo of cover of book on the U.S. Constitution
John Kowal and Wilfred Codrington co-authored their book, "The People's Constitution: 200 Years, 27 Amendments, and the Promise of a More Perfect Union."
Valerie Hendrickson

Codrington and Kowal began by drawing parallels between the United States at the turn of the 20th century and today’s United States 12 decades later. 

Polarization along regional boundaries plagued the nation; political discussion was gridlocked and congressional and presidential elections were closely contested; and an influx of immigrants worried and threatened some Americans over the loss of opportunities. 

Codrington, a constitutional law scholar and professor at Brooklyn Law School, said while the Constitution is both a profoundly visionary and fundamentally flawed document, the American people have molded it into their own through amendments.

“They did this through their extraordinary efforts and made the country more democratic, more inclusive and more suited to the needs of a changing country,” Codrington said.

Both Codrington and Kowal noted that amendments have been reactions to four distinct waves in American history: the Founding era soon after the Constitution’s ratification, the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, the Progressive era in the early 20th century and the Civil Rights era of the mid-20th century. 

Kowal pointed to the Suffrage Movement, which required 40 years of ceaseless effort before it was ratified, as the ideal example. 

“Constitutional changes don’t happen overnight,” Kowal said. “Our book is the story of visionaries, gadflies and citizens who were determined to not let the Constitution stand in the way of bringing change about.”