The Internet is all about superlatives, but I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. This is perhaps the most inspiring story I’ve ever read. Whatever challenges you’re facing, no matter who tells you that you won’t succeed, it will energize you to overcome them.
The story begins in 1982.
A University of Texas student named Gregory Watson had to write a paper on a government process, for his political science class. He headed to the library, where he read up on the U.S. Constitution, and he learned to his amazement, that a proposed amendment from 1789 had been passed by Congress, but never actually ratified by enough states to become law.
The proposed amendment would prohibit Congress from giving itself a raise, unless an intervening election happened. Though the amendment had been proposed by John Adams, and ratified by nine states, becoming part of the Constitution required the sign-off of three-quarters of the state legislatures. That simply hadn’t happened.
By Watson’s estimation, it was still hanging out there in a kind of constitutional netherworld, and he made that argument in his class paper.
His professor, Sharon Waite, didn’t buy it. In fact, she gave him a C. He appealed. She refused to change the grade. And that might have been the end of it.
The letter writing campaign
The C ticked Watson off. He was convinced that he was right, and he wanted to spur adoption of the amendment. So, he started writing letters to every member of Congress and state official he could find.
Most ignored him. Those who did reply told him his quest was quixotic. Finally, U.S. Senator William Cohen, of Maine, took him seriously. In 1982, the year after Watson got his ‘C,’ Maine’s legislature ratified the proposed 200-year-old amendment.
Watson was emboldened. He wrote more letters, but it took a long time. In 1984, Colorado ratified. The next year, five more states. Then nine more states between 1986 and 1988; another seven in 1989.
In May 1992, three more states ratified it, which meant he’d crossed the threshold. Watson, who was virtually unknown outside of Austin, Texas, had pulled it off–leveraging his C-grade paper and getting the United States to ratify a forgotten, 200-year-old amendment. 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, who stumbled on it while doing research on a paper for school. Since then, he has been a one-man band, urging states to pass the Amendment.
Besides the Times, few noticed. There wasn’t a huge celebration.
“I did treat myself to a nice dinner at an expensive restaurant” after it passed, Watson told a reporter at KUT radio.
Heck, let’s get another one
Watson wasn’t done. Although he was never elected to office himself, (these days he’s a 55-year-old state legislative aide in Texas), he arguably is responsible for more substantive legislation than most of those who’ve served in Congress.
After his amendment became law, he also noticed another “failure to ratify” in United States history: a single Southern state–Mississippit–that had never approved the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery.
Sure, it was a moot point–or more accurately a symbolic one. But Watson turned his aim at the state legislature in Jackson, Missippi.
In 1995, his efforts paid off, as Mississippi legislators voted unanimously to ratify the amendment. (Oddly, they never notified the U.S. government of the vote, so it wasn’t official until 2013.)
From a C to an A+
The story sort of ends there–except that there’s still that matter of the college ‘C’ to be dealt with. Clearly, that wasn’t the right grade–and about a decade after Watson’s success, his old professor, Waite, heard of her former student’s exploits.
KUT radio picks up the story, when Waite, now in her 70s, got a call from an author working on a book about amendments to the U.S. constitution:
“They said, ‘Well did you teach at UT-Austin in the early ’80s?’ and I said, ‘Yes I did,'” Sharon says. “And then 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?…
… Goodness, he certainly proved he knew how to work the Constitution and what it meant and how to be politically active. … So, yes, I think he deserves an A after that effort — A+!”
Earlier this month, Waite followed through. On March 4, she signed the paperwork to amend Watson’s 35 year old grade to an A. (She wanted to bump him up to an ‘A+,’ but the university no longer allows ‘A+’ grades.)
The morals of the story? They’re pretty straightforward:
- Never give up.
- One person can make a big difference, given the right circumstances and motivation.
- And, the U.S. Constitution is hard to amend–on purpose.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.