Fact Check

Did Failed Constitutional Amendments Include Ban on Divorce, 'United States of the Earth'?

Since 1789, there have been more than 11,000 proposals to change the U.S. Constitution. Some 99.75% of them were left to gather dust.

Published Oct 29, 2021

Claim:
A list of 15 failed U.S. Constitutional amendments, shared widely in October 2021, was accurate.
Context

On the whole, the list presented 15 proposed amendments with a very high degree of accuracy. Most were entirely accurate, a few were accurate in their substance, with some relatively insignificant disclaimers necessary, and only one involved a degree of misrepresentation.

In October 2021, a list of what appeared to be failed, and in some cases rather bizarre, historical proposals to amend the U.S. Constitution proved popular on the online forum Reddit.

An Oct. 20 post bore the headline "A list of American amendments that were never approved," and consisted of a photograph of a page from a book, containing the following text:

The following is a very limited list of some of the proposed amendments that never left the halls of Congress:

1876 An attempt to abolish the United States Senate
1876 The forbidding of religious leaders from occupying a governmental office or receiving federal funding
1878 An Executive Council of Three to replace the office of President
1893 Renaming this nation the “United States of the Earth”
1893 Abolishing the United States Army and Navy
1894 Acknowledging that the Constitution recognize God and Jesus Christ as the supreme authorities in human affairs
1912 Making marriage between races illegal
1914 Finding divorce to be illegal
1916 All acts of war should be put to a national vote. Anyone voting yes had to register as a volunteer for service in the United States Army.
1933 An attempt to limit personal wealth to $1 million
1936 An attempt to allow the American people to vote on whether or not the United States should go to war
1938 The forbidding of drunkenness in the United States and all of its territories
1947 The income tax maximum for an individual should not exceed 25%
1948 The right of citizens to segregate themselves from others
1971 American citizens should have the [in]alienable right to an environment free of pollution.

On the whole, the list presented 15 proposed amendments with a very high degree of accuracy. Most were entirely accurate, a few were accurate in their substance, with some relatively insignificant disclaimers necessary, and only one involved a degree of misrepresentation. 

The source of the list was "The U.S. Constitution and Fascinating Facts About It," a book that has been printed and updated by Oak Hill Publishing, since the early 1990s.

As the book suggests, the 15 proposals on the list represent a very tiny fraction of all of the failed proposals to amend the U.S. Constitution over the years. According the U.S. Senate historian, more than 11,000 amendments have been proposed since 1789. Of those, only 27 have come into effect, while six others gained the two-thirds majority required in both houses of Congress, but failed to be ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures.

The following is a breakdown of the details and context associated with each of the 15 failed amendments included in the list, presented in chronological order.

1876 An attempt to abolish the United States Senate.
TRUE.

In April 1876, U.S. Rep. Sobieski Ross, R-Pennsylvania, presented two "memorials" (petitions) on behalf of 22 residents of Potter County in northern Pennsylvania, near the border with upstate New York. One called for the "abolition of the presidency," the other called for the "abolition of the United States Senate." The proposed amendments were forwarded to the House Judiciary Committee, but do not appear to have advanced from there. 

In April 1911, U.S. Rep. Victor Berger, a Socialist from Wisconsin, introduced his own proposal to amend the Constitution by abolishing the Senate. The resolution read, in part:

Whereas the Senate in particular has become an obstructive and useless body, a menace to the liberties of the people, and an obstacle to social growth... All legislative powers shall be vested in the House of Representatives. Its enactments, subject to referendum...shall be the supreme law, and the President shall have no power to veto them, nor shall any court have the power to invalidate them.

Berger's proposal never made it out of committee, but shortly afterwards, the Senate passed a separate resolution that would go on to become the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct popular elections to the U.S. Senate, and replaced the existing method whereby state legislatures selected the members of the upper chamber. 

1876: "The forbidding of religious leaders from occupying a governmental office or receiving federal funding."
MIXTURE.

This appears to be a reference to the Blaine Amendments — a series of proposals between 1875 and 1876, the first of which was made by James Blaine, a Maine Republican who was a member of the House, and then the Senate, during that period. Blaine's December 1875 proposal prohibited states from allowing religious groups or schools to receive taxpayer dollars, as follows: 

No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect or denomination; nor shall any funds so raised, or lands so used, be divided among any religious sects or denominations.

However, it did not address the eligibility of "religious leaders" to hold office, and its restrictions relating to public funding were limited to the states, rather than including federal funding. A subsequent Republican revision of Blaine's proposal, in 1876, did expand the funding restrictions to the federal level, but did not involve barring religious leaders from holding office. 

1878: "An Executive Council of Three to replace the office of President."
TRUE. 

In the spring of 1878, U.S. Rep. Milton Southard, D-Ohio, introduced a proposal to replace the existing office of the president with a new "Supreme Executive Council of three." The triumvirate was to be chosen by "qualified electors" of the states, and taken from three would-be new districts: the Western states; the Eastern and Middle states; and the Southern states. 

The original proposal can be found here. The exact stage at which the proposed amendment failed is not clear. 

1893: "Renaming this nation the 'United States of the Earth'"
1893: "Abolishing the United States Army and Navy."
TRUE.

Based on a news report from the spring of 1893, and a 1987 New York Times article, both these measures were included in a proposed constitutional amendment put forward in February 1893, by U.S. Rep. Lucas Militiades Miller, D-Wisconsin. 

However, Miller may have made the proposals at the request of James Seldon Cowen, a Virginia inventor with eclectic interests and theories, who advanced detailed proposals for renaming the country, as well as abolishing the Army, Navy and their "schools of organized murder," in a book published the previous year

1894: "Acknowledging that the Constitution recognize God and Jesus Christ as the supreme authorities in human affairs."
TRUE

In 1894, U.S. Sen. William Frye, R-Maine, introduced a proposal to amend the preamble to the Constitution and explicitly assert the Christianity of the United States. After the words "We the people of the United States," and before "in order to form a more perfect union," Frye proposed to add the following

...devoutly acknowledging the supreme authority and just government of God in all the affairs of men and nations, and grateful to Him for our civil and religious liberty; and encouraged by the assurances of His word, invoke His guidance, as a Christian nation, according to His appointed way, through Jesus Christ,...

1912: "Making marriage between races illegal."
TRUE.

In December 1912, U.S. Rep. Seaborn Roddenberry, D-Georgia, introduced a proposal to prohibit inter-racial marriage by way of constitutional amendment. Roddenberry, a white supremacist and racist extremist even by the standards of the early 20th century, explicitly cited his own revulsion at the recent high-profile marriage between Jack Johnson, the Black heavyweight boxer, and Lucille Cameron, a white woman, as the catalyst for his crusade against "miscegenation," as interracial relationships were at that time widely described. 

In support of his cause, Roddenberry described inter-racial marriage as being "repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit," according to a contemporaneous news report that contains some exceptionally offensive racist language. 

Roddenberry's proposed amendment did not make it past the House Judiciary Committee, but several states subsequently introduced laws banning inter-racial marriage, until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Loving vs. Virginia, that any and all laws prohibiting or restricting marriage based on racial considerations were in violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause. 

1914: "Finding divorce to be illegal."
TRUE.

In February 1914, U.S. Sen. Joseph Ransdell, D-Louisiana, proposed a constitutional amendment to outlaw divorce in the United States, arguing that the increased prevalence of divorce posed a threat to "the home," which he described as "the chief bulwark of society." He added:

The remedy by constitutional prohibition is drastic, but the malady is so fatal that nothing short of it will prove efficacious. In the United States, divorce is spreading with alarming rapidity. It has permeated every walk of life and is prevalent among every class of people.

The proposal did not make it out of committee

1916: "All acts of war should be put to a national vote. Anyone voting yes had to register as a volunteer for service in the United States Army."
TRUE.

Several sources refer to a 1916 petition, signed by a group of Nebraska residents, which proposed to amend the constitution by requiring a referendum in order to declare war. A 1987 New York Times article reported that "the petition proposed that all those who voted in favor of the United States entering World War I be willing to enlist."

We haven't yet tracked down that 1916 petition, but its description in the 1987 Times article was based on the account of a National Archives curator, and so can be relied upon as accurate.

We were able to locate a proposal, brought before the House in February 1916, by U.S. Rep. Denver Church, D-California, who similarly called for a popular vote before any declaration of war. However, it's not clear if this was separate to the "Nebraska" proposal, or one and the same. 

1933: "An attempt to limit personal wealth to $1 million."
TRUE.

On May 9, 1933, U.S. Rep. Wesley Lloyd, D-Washington, proposed House Joint Resolution 178, which called for a constitutional amendment allowing Congress to set "the maximum amount of wealth allowed to any one individual" at a ceiling of "1,000,000 gold dollars." It's not clear at what stage the proposal died, but it does not appear to have reached a vote in either house. 

1936: "An attempt to allow the American people to vote on whether or not the United States should go to war."
MOSTLY TRUE. (The proposed amendment would still have allowed the U.S. to go to war without popular approval, in the event of an attack or invasion).

Since the 1910s, several members of Congress advocated for the introduction of referendums as a prerequisite for the United States' entering a war. Most notably, between 1935 and 1936, U.S. Rep. Louis Ludlow, D-Indiana, embarked on what one historian described as a "war referendum crusade." 

In January 1935, he introduced a resolution in the House, calling for a constitutional amendment that would require that, "except in the event of attack or invasion," any Congressional resolution to go to war must be put to a popular referendum, and would not come into effect unless backed by a majority of voters. 

The resolution was debated in the House Judiciary Committee, where it remained during 1935 and 1936, but advanced no further.

1938: "The forbidding of drunkenness in the United States and all of its territories."
TRUE.

In April 1938, U.S. Rep. Gomer Griffith Smith, D-Oklahoma, introduced House Joint Resolution 661, a proposed constitutional amendment that stated: "Drunkenness in the United States and all Territories thereof is hereby prohibited."

The proposal was considered by the House Judiciary Committee, but appears to have gone no further. In a copy of the resolution provided to the committee — and now held by the National Archives — an unknown individual added a handwritten note ironically suggesting an additional section:  "That period of time, commonly known as Saturday night, is hereby stricken from the calendars of the United States, and abolished."

1947: "The income tax maximum for an individual should not exceed 25%"
MOSTLY TRUE.

This one appears to be referring to one of two tax-related proposed constitutional amendments put forward in 1947 by U.S. Rep. Noah Mason, R-Illinois. We haven't yet been able to locate the exact wording of those proposals, but we know that a subsequent compendium of proposed constitutional amendments, compiled by the U.S. Senate Library, described House Joint Resolutions 24 and 256 as both being "relative to taxes on incomes, inheritances and gifts."

We also know that in the previous Congress, in 1945, Mason — a Welsh-born conservative Republican — had proposed House Joint Resolution 88, which the same compendium described as proposing to "repeal the Sixteenth Amendment" — which allowed Congress to levy a federal income tax without having to distribute those monies among the states — as well as limiting "income, gift and inheritance tax to 25 percent." 

It is therefore highly likely that Mason's subsequent proposals, in 1947, called for substantially the same outcome.

1948: "The right of citizens to segregate themselves from others."
TRUE

In May 1948, U.S. Rep. Oren Harris, D-Arkansas, introduced a proposal to amend the Constitution as follows: "The right of any number of citizens to voluntarily segregate themselves from others for any lawful purpose shall not be denied." 

Harris, who opposed racial desegregation, was explicitly responding to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Shelley vs. Kraemer, which had been published just days earlier. In that opinion, the Court had ruled that racially restrictive covenants — which were relatively common at that time and prohibited homeowners in historically white neighborhoods from selling their houses to non-white buyers — violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. 

Harris's proposal languished in the House Judiciary Committee. 

1971 American citizens should have the [in]alienable right to an environment free of pollution.
TRUE. 

In 1968, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wisconsin, proposed a constitutional amendment that stated simply "Every person has the inalienable right to a decent environment. The United States and every state shall guarantee this right."

Nelson, a progressive Democrat, environmentalist and co-founder of Earth Day, proposed the same amendment again in January 1970, explaining: 

In its degradation of the quality of American life, in its danger to the fu­ture of man himself, I believe the environmental crisis is the greatest single threat to our pursuit of those inalienable rights — life, liberty. and the pursuit of happiness — which we have recognized as a society.

Although that resolution was first introduced in 1970, the 91st Congress lasted until early 1971, so it's reasonable to date it to that year, although 1970 would probably be more suitable. 


Sources:

A Proposed Constitutional Amendment to Dissolve the United States Senate | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1901-1950/A-proposed-constitutional-amendment-to-dissolve-the-United-States-Senate/. Accessed 29 Oct. 2021.

 
AGAINST ABSOLUTE DIVORCE; Senator Ransdell Proposes Constitutional Amendment to Stop It. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1914/02/05/100298369.html?pageNumber=8. Accessed 29 Oct. 2021.
 
cdistefa. “A List of American Amendments That Were Never Approved.” R/Mildlyinteresting, 20 Oct. 2021, www.reddit.com/r/mildlyinteresting/comments/qc496d/a_list_of_american_amendments_that_were_never/.
 
ConstitutionFacts.Com - Learn about the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and Much More! https://www.constitutionfacts.com/?section=aboutus&page=aboutus.cfm. Accessed 29 Oct. 2021.
 
Cowdon, James Seldon. Pantocracy; Or, The Reign of Justice. The author, 1892.
 
“House Joint Resolution 39, May 1, 1911.” National Archives, 15 Aug. 2016, https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/17th-amendment/hjres39.html.
 
LeLoup, Lance T. Politics in America: The Ability to Govern. West Publishing Company, 1991.
 
Library, United States Congress Senate. Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America: Introduced to Congress from the 69th Congress, 2d Session, Through the 87th Congress, 2d Session, December 6, 1926, to January 3, 1963. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963.
 
Musmanno, Michael Angelo. Proposed Amendments to the Constitution: A Monograph on the Resolutions Introduced in Congress Proposing Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1929.
 
NW, 1615 L. St, et al. “Separation of Church and States: An Examination of State Constitutional Limits on Government Funding for Religious Institutions.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 28 Mar. 2003, https://www.pewforum.org/2003/03/28/separation-of-church-and-states-an-examination-of-state-constitutional-limits-on-government-funding-for-religious-institutions/.
 
The American Register. American Register Company, 1881.
 
Times, Special to the New York. “WASHINTON TALK; Letters to Congress: Amend the Constitution? Let Us Count the Ways.” The New York Times, 3 Aug. 1987. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/03/us/washinton-talk-letters-to-congress-amend-the-constitution-let-us-count-the-ways.html.
 
U.S. Senate: Amending the Constitution. https://www.senate.gov/reference/reference_index_subjects/Constitution_vrd.htm. Accessed 29 Oct. 2021.

Dan Mac Guill is a former writer for Snopes.

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