The Incredible Story Of How A College Student Singlehandedly Changed The Constitution

By Ana Cedeno

While every experience is different, there are some universal truths when it comes to college.

The food is always expensive for example.

You learn to crave privacy after having a roommate, and term papers are either an easy “A” or the bane of your existence.

Such is life. 

But for Gregory Watson, one such term paper would go on to change his life forever.

As a student in 1982 attending the University of Texas, Watson wrote a term paper on the topic of the unratified 27th Amendment to the Constitution.

At the time there were only 26 Amendments to the Constitution, and dozens of other proposals throughout the course of American history were never able to join in their elite number.

For his paper, Watson wanted to impress. So he dug deep through archives where he found the text of a proposed Amendment first proposed in 1787 but was left unratified due to lack of support, as only six states backed it.

This proposed Amendment stated that No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

What this basically means is that a congressman cannot vote themselves a pay raise and have it take effect immediately, but would have to wait until the next election cycle.

This in turn would give them an incentive to be less corrupt, since if they act in any way that makes people think they don’t deserve the raise, they can be voted out.

195 years down the road, Watson found the Amendment while looking for a topic for his paper in the Austin public Library.  

According to an article in the Post-Gazettethe Amendment caught Watson’s attention, and upon finding that it was still in play realized it could still be passed.

So he wrote a banging paper about it that only received a C grade because the professor didn’t think his idea of getting the Amendment passed was realistic.

Later in an interview for Unlock Congress, Watson agreed this just episode made him more determined to see the process through.

He did this by going on to contact state legislators all around the country, trying to convince them the Amendment should be ratified.  

“I knew that all I had to do was show this to the state legislatures and convince them that it had no deadline,” Watson told the Huffington Post. “And therefore, because it had no deadline, it was technically still pending business. And they could still take it up — even though it was 192 or 193 years later. And sure enough, that’s what happened. The very next year I was able to get Maine to approve it. And once I got a state to approve it, the momentum took off. The year after that, 1984, I got Colorado to pass it. It really took off in 1985; five states passed it. I knew it was just a simple matter of clearly presenting this issue to the state legislatures, and that they would act appropriately. And they did.”

By 1992, Alabama, Missouri and Michigan were the last states to ratify the amendment, finally making it a reality a decade after he was given a “C” on that term paper.

While he’s come a long way from that sophomore in 1982, Watson’s passion for politics hasn’t died down. He is still involved as a Legislative Policy Analyst in the Texas Legislature and encourages others to take an interest in politics.

"You say you'll change the constitution. Ok." Photo Credit: Alex Harden/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

“You say you’ll change the constitution. Ok.” The Beatles weren’t exactly Constitutional experts. Photo Credit: Alex Harden/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

If the public does not constantly monitor and communicate with their elected officials, guess what?,” Watson said in the interview with Unlock Congress. “Their elected officials are going to play, and they’re going to engage in sleazy behavior… and the only way to keep them honest is by constantly monitoring them and constantly communicating with them.”

While this story of sophomore-assignment-turned-Amendment seems borderline incredible, it goes to show just how alive the Constitution truly is.

It also sets an example for those who want to make a difference in the country.

If this one man was able to bring about a change to the Constitution-something that many people more powerful then himself have failed at, then imagine what we all could do if we worked together towards collective change. 

All you have to do is be willing to fight for that change, even if you get a C. 

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in public affairs. You can write for us.

Cover Photo Credit: Daniel R. Blume/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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