Diving into the Constitution: Amendments XXIV through XXVI

I came of age in the 1960s and lived through the events described here with growing understanding and passionate involvement. I remember where I was and what I was doing when JFK was shot and when the lunar landing was televised. I voted for the first time in 1969. My children were born in 1973. This is not dusty history to me. I say these things in the hope that you too are paying attention and storing up memories and understandings to pass on to your children and their children. The United States of today bears little resemblance in some fundamental ways to the America of my childhood. In other ways, however, the energy and vision that has led to the Trump phenomenon (both pro- and anti-) over the past four years bears much resemblance to the hopes and dreams of many during the all-too-short Kennedy Presidency and the radical activism that followed his death.

HISTORY, 1960-1980

Ask anyone who lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s and they will confirm that it was a time of social upheaval – the polar opposite of the public face of the ‘50s. At first, with the election of Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) in late 1960, the country was poised for more growth and inclusion. JFK was the country’s first Roman Catholic President – a big step forward in the eyes of many – a WWII Pacific Theater combat veteran (he received both a Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart and was the only President to receive either medal), young, handsome, brilliant, and with money and connections that meant he could hit the ground running. His beautiful young family promised to bring vigor to the White House and to all areas of American life.

The Space Program

An area of great success during the 1960s was the space program. The first weather satellite, TIROS-1, had been launched in 1960. The sky was no longer the limit. The cold war was in full swing, and both the Soviet Union and the United States were in a race to be first to land a man on the moon. The Mercury program under Eisenhower had done much to test the capabilities of both astronauts and their vehicles to perform in space. In 1961, Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. To bolster American confidence, JFK asked Congress for $9 billion dollars: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

Within a year Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom became the first two Americans to travel into space, and John Glenn orbited the earth. Project Gemini was the second NASA spaceflight program. Gemini’s mission was to master the entry and reentry from space to earth. Following Gemini was the Apollo project. The Apollo project lasted from 1961 to 1975. The goal for the Apollo mission was to land a man on the moon. On July, 20, 1969 the mission became complete with Apollo 11. Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men ever to walk on the moon while astronaut Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit. Throughout the entire Apollo program, six Apollo spacecraft successfully landed 12 astronauts on the moon. The last landed on December of 1972.

The 1970s were a transition time in the U.S. space program, the bridge between moon landings and a regular space shuttle program and the International Space Station. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida was aptly named to continue JFK’s vision. The Center team launched men to the moon five times, rescued a crew during an emergency, sent America’s first space station into orbit, and sent a pair of space crafts on a rare journey to see the four outer planets up close. The twin Viking landers set down softly on the Martian surface and beamed back the first analysis of the rust-colored soil there; and the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975 saw American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts shake hands in space for the first time, a preview of the relationship that now sustains the International Space Station.

The Baby Boom, ZPG, and the Feminist Movement

A surge in family size following the return of WWII veterans in the 1950s led to the largest generation ever in U.S. history, the “Baby Boomers” (born 1946-1964). This generation started voting in 1967, served in Vietnam, and drove social and economic trends for many decades to follow. It is hard to imagine how different political activism trends and activity levels would have been during the later 1960s and beyond if there had not been such a huge population increase. What is interesting is that this very trend fueled dire predictions on the left that the planet would run out of resources and drove a (continuing) narrative that “zero population growth” and family limitation is the only answer both domestically and around the globe.

Another outgrowth of the anti-nuclear family movement was the feminist movement and its key spokeswomen, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.  This movement championed equal rights for women in the workplace and society but also abortion rights to “free” women from the “oppression” of motherhood.

Domestic Assistance Programs

During his presidential campaign in 1960, JFK had promised the most ambitious domestic agenda since FDR’s New Deal: the “New Frontier,” a package of laws and reforms that sought to eliminate injustice and inequality in the United States. The New Frontier ran into problems right away because the Democrats’ Congressional majority depended on a group of Southerners who loathed the plan’s interventionist liberalism and did all they could to block it. It wasn’t until JFK’s Vice President – Texan Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) – became President and kicked off his “Great Society” programs that FDR-type domestic assistance programs kicked into high gear again. These programs have survived and grown: Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965; as well as environmental protection legislation, and the “War on Poverty”. Despite its name, the War on Poverty and its legacy programs have actually caused an increase in dependence and poverty, and the destruction of the nuclear family.

International Aid Programs

Government assistance programs grew internationally.  Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, and JFK signed an executive order in 1961 creating the USAID, putting all foreign aid programs under a single agency. Following the vision of the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, programs supporting technical assistance and capital projects continued as the primary form of U.S. aid in the 1960s, the “decade of development”.

In the 1970s, the USAID began to shift its focus away from technical and capital assistance programs. Instead, U.S. development assistance abroad stressed a “basic human needs” approach, which focused on: food and nutrition, population planning, health, education, and human resources development. Sadly, this attempt to parent other countries has been as much of a failure as LBJ’s War on Poverty: the decline of the nuclear family paired with dependence on government subsidies rather than on a popular demand for increased self-governance and freedom for entrepreneurs to flourish.

International Conflicts

The Cuban Missile Crisis and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in the early 1960s were disastrous for JFK’s administration. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a CIA-led attempted coup by disaffected Cubans to overthrow the newly installed regime of Fidel Castro after he opened relations with the Soviet Union, and the missile crisis almost led to a hot war between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Vietnam War was a conflict that took place in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from November 1, 1955 to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 (American troops first participated on the ground starting in 1961 and then more publicly from about 1965 on). It would require at least an entire blog post to begin an analysis of the history of the region and the impact this war had and continues to have on the American psyche. Huge numbers of older baby boomers were subjected to a military draft and had to fight a war that many neither supported nor understood. Worst of all, there was no clear path to “winning”. When the troops came home, they were spat on and called baby killers. Decades later, the Veterans Administration has still not dealt adequately with Agent Orange claims. The Vietnam War broke the collective American perception that the Federal government would only involve troops in wars that were important to national security and would only commit the minimum forces necessary to accomplish the mission effectively.

The 1970s ended with the toppling of the Shah of Iran due to a combination of the antagonism between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and religious forces within Iran. U. S. President Jimmy Carter’s disastrous handling of Americans held hostage in Tehran for 444 days under Iranian revolutionary forces led to his loss of the 1980 election. The hostages were released as soon as President Ronald Reagan’s election was confirmed, but the relations between Iran and the United States – once very friendly – have remained strained over the decades since.

Civil Rights

Black Americans continued the strategy of nonviolent action begun in the 1950s to press their case for equality in civic life. In 1960, Black college students sat down at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina and refused to leave. Their sit-in captured media attention and led to similar demonstrations throughout the South. The next year, civil rights workers organized “freedom rides,” in which blacks and whites boarded buses heading South toward segregated terminals, where confrontations might capture media attention and lead to change.

They also organized rallies, the largest of which was the “March on Washington” in 1963. More than 200,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital to demonstrate their commitment to equality for all. The high point of a day of songs and speeches came with the address of Martin Luther King Jr., who had emerged as the preeminent spokesman for civil rights. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” King proclaimed. But JFK was beholden to Southern Democrat votes on other important issues and then was assassinated before he could move forward on his promises for greater civil rights, including a Civil Rights Act which he proposed in 1963. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress in 1962 to abolish the poll tax and was ratified in January of 1964.

Lyndon Johnson adopted a public pro-equality stance after he assumed the Presidency upon JFK’s death to further his chances for reelection in 1964. He persuaded the Senate to limit debate – following one of the longest debates in Senate history – and secured the passage of the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964. The next year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to clear the way for increased Black voter registration in the South. In 1966, 400,000 blacks registered in the deep South; by 1968 the number reached 1 million and nationwide the number of black elected officials increased substantially. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act), which “prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex.”. Clearly this legislation also impacted enforceable rights for Native Americans and other minorities as well as Blacks.

It is important to note that, although President Johnson gets credit – as does  his party by association – for passage of these important pieces of civil rights legislation, Republicans in both the House and Senate consistently voted in much higher proportions in favor of each one. In general, about 1/3 of Democrats voted against in each case. The most stark contrast was the Senate vote regarding the Twenty-Fourth Amendment: Democrats voted 45-17 and Republicans voted 30-1. Find more details here.

Despite all the legislative activity, some Blacks became impatient with the pace of progress. Malcolm X  argued for Black separation from the white race. Stokely Carmichael, a student leader (born Kwame Ture in Trinidad, immigrated to the U.S. at age 11), became similarly disillusioned by the notions of nonviolence and interracial cooperation. He preached the need for Black Power, to be achieved “by whatever means necessary”. Violence accompanied militant calls for reform. Riots broke out in several big cities in 1966 and 1967. In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Several months later, Senator Robert Kennedy – a spokesman for the disadvantaged, an opponent of the Vietnam War, and the brother of the slain President – met the same fate. Tensions exploded in rioting at the 1968 Democrat Convention. The “Chicago Seven” were among the arrested demonstrators and exemplified the strands of protest groups of the times . To many, 1968 marked the end of an era of innocence and idealism in both civil rights and the anti-war movements. The growing militancy on the left opened a rift in the nation’s psyche that has not healed.

While many revisionist historians want to claim that President Richard Nixon (1969-1974) and Republicans in Congress were responsible for a stall in civil rights advancement in the 1970s, we need to dig into the facts. The recent focus on the record of former Vice President Joe Biden on school busing has helped to bring the truth of those times to light. The “Southern strategy” attributed to Nixon and his party was actually a continuation of the tactics and attitudes of southern Democrats. In fact, The progressive columnist Tom Wicker wrote in the New York Times, “There’s no doubt about it – the Nixon administration accomplished more in 1970 to desegregate Southern school systems than had been done in the 16 previous years or probably since. There’s no doubt either that it was Richard Nixon personally who conceived and led the administration’s desegregation effort.”

Opponents of busing gained a victory in 1974 in Milliken v. Bradley, in which the Supreme Court invalidated efforts to transfer inner-city black students to suburban schools that were predominately white. The pushback against preferential treatment based on physical characteristics became even more public in a Supreme Court case in 1978. Allan Bakke, a white man, claimed that a quota reserving places for minority applicants was responsible for the rejection of his application to medical school in California. The court ordered his admission, arguing that quotas could no longer be imposed, but then upheld the consideration of race as one of the relevant factors in selection procedures.

The concept of equality in America is based on equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome. The proper methods and measures required to assure balance on the opportunity side are not always easy to determine.

Despite the controversy over busing and affirmative action, there was a steady increase of African Americans in the ranks of business, government, the middle class, and suburban home ownership throughout these tumultuous years.

Domestic Terrorism

The expansion of plane travel for more than the elite in the 1950s and 1960s enabled hijacking (or skyjacking, as it was known then). In the United States, flights going to and from Cuba were frequently hijacked, though the actions were not always motivated by strong political intentions. This was the era of post-colonial national liberation movements in other parts of the world. In Algeria, in the Middle East, in Cuba, guerrilla warfare was “revolutionary chic” as much as it was a serious tactic. Both the serious intention and the youthful fashion took hold in the United States.

American youth opposed to what they viewed as American imperialism, fueled by the ideals of civil rights for blacks, women, gays, and others, and strongly opposed to the deepening entanglement in Vietnam, turned radical and sometimes violent. Some had a relatively coherent platform – such as the Black Panther Party , Students for a Democratic Society, and the Weatherman/Weather Underground – while others like the Symbionese Liberation Army (who famously kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst) were simply in favor of something vaguely revolutionary.

It was in the context of these multiple explosive trends that Amendments XXIV through XVI were passed and ratified.


Twenty-Fourth Amendment

Southern States of the former Confederate States of America adopted poll taxes in laws of the late 19th century and new constitutions from 1890 to 1908 – after the Democratic Party had generally regained control of state legislatures decades after the end of Reconstruction – as a measure to prevent African-Americans and many poor whites from voting. Use of the poll taxes by states was held to be constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in the 1937 decision Breedlove v. Suttles.

On August 27, 1962, the House passed the 24th Amendment, outlawing the poll tax as a voting requirement in federal elections, by a vote of 295 to 86. At the time, five States maintained poll taxes which disproportionately affected African-American voters: Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. The poll tax exemplified “Jim Crow” laws developed in the post-Reconstruction South which aimed to disenfranchise black voters and institute segregation. Some critics of the legislation thought the amendment did not go far enough to protect black voting rights in state and local elections. On January 23, 1964, the 24th Amendment became part of the Constitution when South Dakota ratified it.

Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax.

Section 2.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Twenty-Fifth Amendment

Note: Article II, section 1, of the Constitution was affected by the 25th amendment.

The ambiguities in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution regarding death, resignation, removal, or disability of the President had created difficulties several times in preceding decades:

  • In 1841, William Henry Harrison died in office. It had previously been suggested that the vice president would become acting president upon the death of the president, but Vice President John Tyler asserted that he had succeeded to the presidency, instead of merely assuming its powers and duties; he also declined to acknowledge documents referring to him as acting president. Although Tyler felt his vice presidential oath obviated any need for the presidential oath, he was persuaded that being formally sworn in would resolve any doubts; after taking the oath he moved into the White House and assumed full presidential powers. Though Tyler was sometimes derided as “His Accidency”, both houses of Congress adopted a resolution confirming that he was president. The “Tyler precedent” of succession was thus established.
  • Following Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919, no one officially assumed his powers and duties, in part because his condition was kept secret by his wife and the White House physician. By the time Wilson’s condition became public knowledge, only a few months remained in his term and Congressional leaders were disinclined to press the issue.
  • Prior to 1967, the office of vice president had become vacant sixteen times due to the death or resignation of the vice president or his succession to the presidency. The vacancy created when Andrew Johnson succeeded to the presidency upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was one of several that encompassed nearly the entire four-year term. In 1868, Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives and came one vote short of being removed from office by the Senate. Had Johnson been removed, President pro tempore Benjamin Wade would have become acting president in accordance with the Presidential Succession Act of 1792.
  • After several periods of incapacity due to severe health problems, President Dwight D. Eisenhower attempted to clarify procedures through a signed agreement with Vice President Richard Nixon. However, this agreement did not have legal authority. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in September 1955 and intestinal problems requiring emergency surgery in July 1956. Each time, until Eisenhower was able to resume his duties, Nixon presided over Cabinet meetings and, along with Eisenhower aides, kept the executive branch functioning and assured the public the situation was under control. However, Nixon never claimed to be president or acting president.

By the 1960s, medical advances had made increasingly plausible the scenario of an injured or ill president living a long time while incapacitated. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 demonstrated to policymakers the need for a clear procedure for determining presidential disability, especially in the context of the Cold War. The new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had once suffered a heart attack and – with the office of vice president to remain vacant until the next term began on January 20, 1965 – the next two people in the line of succession were the 71-year-old Speaker of the House John McCormack and the 86-year-old Senate President pro tempore Carl Hayden. The Amendment was passed by Congress on July 6, 1967 and ratified by the States on February 10, 1967.

Section 1.
In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.

Section 2.
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.

Section 3.
Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Section 4.
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

Twenty-Sixth Amendment

Note: Amendment 14, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by section 1 of the 26th amendment.

The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the legal voting age in the United States from 21 to 18, but the push for the change started decades earlier. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the minimum age for the military draft age to 18, at a time when the minimum voting age (as determined by the individual States) had historically been 21. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” became a common slogan for a youth voting rights movement, and in 1943 Georgia became the first State to lower its voting age in State and local elections from 21 to 18. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower gave his support to the right to vote at age 18.

The long debate over lowering the voting age intensified during the Vietnam War, when young men denied the right to vote were being conscripted to fight for their country. In the 1970 case Oregon v. Mitchell, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had the right to regulate the minimum age in federal elections but not at the State and local level. Amid increasing support for a Constitutional Amendment, Congress passed the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in March 1971. The States promptly ratified it, and President Nixon signed it into law that July.

Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Section 2.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


If you are keeping track, the Presidents during these two decades were Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961), John F. Kennedy (1961-1963, assassinated while in office), Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969), Richard Nixon (1969-1974, resigned following the Watergate scandal), Gerald Ford (had been Vice President, 1974-1977), and Jimmy Carter (1977-1981).

As a disclaimer, I must confess that there are many really important issues that I have not examined. Just a few examples are: Cesar Chavez and the formation of the National Farmworkers Union (1962),  the assassination of President Kennedy (1963), President Nixon’s removal of the U.S. dollar from the gold standard and the return of free market pricing for gold (1971), and the roles that the central banks and the growing military industrial complex played in recessions (1960, 1970, and 1973-75, the most severe) and the ongoing wars. Feel free to dive into any of these topics or even to reach out to me for more discussion. I suppose that I am amazed that the era only resulted in three Constitutional Amendments and not more!

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