Gregory Watson (and how to change the world)

When you feel like cynically proclaiming the impossibility of ever making any real progress, think about the story of Gregory Watson.

In 1982, Gregory Watson was a UT Austin undergrad struggling to think of a topic to write about for his political science paper.

He came across an old failed attempt to amend the Constitution, first proposed over 200 years earlier in 1789. The amendment prevented congressional pay raises from taking place until after an election, the idea being that a Congressman shouldn’t be able to just give themselves pay-raises willy-nilly, without first having to wait to be re-elected.

Gregory had a wild idea: maybe the amendment could still be passed. He looked into it, and found that amazingly, yes, the amendment process was still live. Deadlines for amendment ratification were introduced in 1917, over a hundred years before the amendment was proposed. So this amendment had never gotten a deadline.

Excited, he wrote up his paper on this, suggesting that this amendment could and should be sent out for ratification 200 years after its proposal. He turned in the paper to his teaching assistant, and… got a C.

Sure that there was a mistake, he appealed the grade to the professor, and… once more got a C.

His paper judged inadequate, Gregory began lobbying lawmakers, sending letters to members of Congress. Most responses were disappointingly negative – the amendment was 200 years old, and this sort of thing just wasn’t done. But he didn’t stop. He kept writing appeals to members of Congress for years, pushing them to bring this amendment to the floor of state legislatures.

Finally the tide shifted in the hail of Gregory’s determined appeals to state lawmakers.

Maine passed the amendment a year after his failed paper. Colorado approved the amendment 2 years later. Then five more states the next year. And 16 more states in the following four years.

By 1992, the 27th Amendment was ratified. And in 2017, his old professor signed a grade change form, changing Gregory’s grade to an A+.

An undergraduate political science student changed the United States’ Constitution, for the better. And was given a C for it.

The system can be exasperating, and cases like these are few and far between, but they do happen.


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