Amendments

Not all good stories have happy endings. Plus, 7 other things worth your time.

In 1982, a student at the University of Texas at Austin named Gregory Watson, then 19, was reading about the U.S. Constitution.

He learned, to his surprise, that there was a proposed constitutional amendment from 1789 that had never been ratified by enough states to become part of the Constitution.

Offered by Rep. James Madison (who would later go on to become the fourth president) the amendment had been ratified by nine states over the years, but there had been no further progress.

Its goal was simple: it would delay the effective date of any Congressional salary adjustment until after there had been an intervening Congressional election.

Watson was intrigued, and he argued in a paper for a political science class that this proposed, 192-year-old amendment might still be out there, pending, in a kind of constitutional limbo. But his professor didn't buy it. 

Watson got a “C” grade, both on the paper and in the class. He appealed, but to no avail.

That ticked Watson off. So, he started writing to members of Congress and state officials.

Most ignored him, but U.S. Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine took him more seriously. In 1983, the year after Watson got his “C,” Maine's legislature ratified Madison’s then-193-year-old proposed amendment.

Watson was emboldened. He wrote more letters. It took time, but he made progress.

In 1984, Colorado ratified. The next year, five more states. Then, 10 more states between 1986 and 1988; another 10 between 1989 and 1991.

Then, in May 1992, Alabama provided the pivotal, 38th ratification—pushing the measure over the finish line, and into the Constitution as the 27th Amendment, 202 years after Congress had first proposed it.

The New York Times reported at the time:

The current burst of activity is a tribute in part to the doggedness of a Texas gadfly.

After languishing in a political netherworld for more than two centuries, Madison's Amendment was resurrected 10 years ago by Gregory D. Watson, who at the time was a student of government at the University of Texas ...

Since then, he has been a one-man band, urging states to pass the Amendment.

Afterward, Watson noticed another "failure to ratify," in that a single Southern state, Mississippi, had never given its official blessing to the 13th Amendment.

This is the one that outlaws slavery. It’s kind of important.

Watson redirected his fire, and in 1995, his efforts paid off again: Mississippi legislators voted unanimously in favor of the amendment.

Then, there were two more.

Watson realized that Tennessee had never ratified the 15th Amendment, which says the government shall not deny or abridge the right to vote “…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

And, Texas had not ratified the 24th Amendment, banning poll taxes in federal elections.

By now, you’ve guessed it: Watson pushed, the legislatures responded, and “post-ratified” the 13th, 15th, and 24th Amendments.

Finally, there was one more wrong to be set right: the old college “C.”

As KUT radio reported, Watson’s old professor, Sharon Waite, got a call from an author working on a book about the U.S. Constitution:

They asked, “Did you know that one of your students, Gregory Watson, pursued getting this constitutional amendment passed because you gave him a bad grade?...”

Yes, I think he deserves an A after that effort -- A+!

Waite followed through in 2017, signing the paperwork to change Watson's 35-year-old course grade of “C” to an “A.” (The university apparently does not recognize “plus” or “minus” grades.)

Nice story, right? I first wrote about it a few years ago on Inc.com. The headline I chose was literally: Trust Me. This Is the Most Inspiring Story You'll Read All Day.

But, people apparently did not trust me. Not that many people read it.

And at the time, I was unable to reach Watson directly to ask him more. So, I came up with my own morals:

  • Never give up.

  • One person can make a big difference.

  • Also, the U.S. Constitution is hard to amend, on purpose.

But then, I thought about it again more recently, and I renewed my search for Mr. Watson.

This time, I found him.

“You indeed have the correct Gregory Watson,” he said in an email.

I wanted to know how things had turned out. Was he still in Austin? Had his dogged determination led to success and happiness in other pursuits?

If you’re hoping for a happy ending, I’m sorry to say that things are not that neat.

Mr. Watson did not hold back:

I still reside in Austin. Due to rampant, systemic, and institutionalized age discrimination, nobody in the political world will give me the time of day. Therefore, I work a low-wage and menial retail job which I absolutely hate.

He followed up later, with a bit more detail:

Age 59, single, and no children. I work … as a cashier at a nationwide big-box retailer. I stay because with NO college degree, and now at the advanced age of 59, employers are NOT exactly clamoring to hire me—27th Amendment or no 27th Amendment.

I am extremely unhappy with my lot in life—poverty, financial misery, due to the absence of gainful, stable, and appropriate employment.

It took me a long time in life to realize I can’t save the world or improve the lives of every single person I meet who has a sad story. Sometimes all I can do is share what they have to say with as much respect and truth as I can find.

And I suppose, I can try my hand at a new, updated moral. It’s a two-parter. You can agree with it or not.

First, choose your passions, rather than letting your passions choose you.

Second, sometimes the only reward you’ll get for doing what you think is the right thing, is the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

That’s it. Maybe it’s enough; maybe it’s not. Act accordingly.

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I did something very unusual with today’s newsletter: I let Mr. Watson see a full draft ahead of time. As I told him, I have no desire to add unwanted drama or pain to his life, so if he preferred not to have the story run, I would have dropped it.

Anyway, Mr. Watson approved, and he also caught a few errors in my first draft, such as when I’d credited John Adams, not James Madison, with coming up with the idea for the eventual 27th Amendment. Thanks to Mr. Watson for participating.


7 other things worth your time

  • Crypto crashed. “Bitcoin, Ethereum and a host of Altcoins suffered massive drops Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, erasing months of gains and hundreds of billions in market cap. The overall crypto market shrunk more than 20% over the past 24 hours according to crypto tracker CoinMarketCap.” (Yahoo Finance)

  • EU reopens to American travelers (if you’re vaccinated). But not the UK. (The Washington Post, The Evening Standard)

  • The governor of Texas signed a new law outlawing almost all abortions in the nation’s second-most populous state. (Austin Statesman)

  • New challenge: how to recycle the 129 billion masks that people have been using every month during Covid-19. (Phys.org)

  • Canada’s housing crunch: “The second-largest country in the world is running out of land.” (Bloomberg)

  • Almost comical: Pro Publica uncovered about $7 million in PPP loans that went to “fake companies (mostly farms) with names like ‘Deely Nuts’ and ‘Beefy King.’” (ProPublica)

  • The CEO of Colonial Pipeline explained why he opted to pay a $4.4 million ransom to hackers. “I wasn’t comfortable seeing money go out the door to people like this. But it was the right thing to do for the country.” (WSJ)

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Gregory Watson. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here

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