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Tenth Amendment

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noun

an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing to the states and the people those rights that are not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution.

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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

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What is the Tenth Amendment?

The Tenth Amendment is an addendum to the United States Constitution and exists within the Bill of Rights.

Its exact language states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

It helps to define the division of power between the federal government and the state governments.

How do you pronounce Tenth Amendment?

[ tenth uhmend-muhnt ]

Where did the Tenth Amendment come from?

The Tenth Amendment is the last entry in the Bill of Rights, which was created in order to restrict the range of governmental power and to preserve individual liberty. Though there were a total of 12 original amendments approved by the Senate, 2 of them weren’t ratified by the states.

The Tenth Amendment itself was passed by Congress on September 25, 1789, and was ratified by the states on December 15, 1791 to become, well, the 10th amendment to make the cut. Since it’s in the Constitution, the Tenth Amendment hasn’t changed at all from its original wording, although its relevance and interpretation have been subject to varying opinions. Its interpretation, in fact, has been subject to heated conversations about the Founding Fathers’ intentions.

Much of the discussion of the Tenth Amendment revolves around discourse that seeks to explain it. After all, it’s no secret that technical jargon like that present in the Constitution can be tough to understand. It also pops up in discussions about its contemporary use in the current political landscape. For example, in 2016, the Tenth Amendment was very relevant in regard to laws about marijuana. On the federal level, it’s an illegal substance, but on the state level, in some cases it’s legal. Another significant example is the decision of some states to allow for marriage equality for LGBTQ+ individuals prior to the court case that ruled that excluding these individuals from the ability to marry was unconstitutional (Obergefell v. Hodges).

How to use the Tenth Amendment

Generally, the Tenth Amendment relates to the relationship between individual states and the federal government. It preserves the right of the states to choose what’s best for them. It was also intended to make it clear that unless the federal government was explicitly granted authority to make a decision, it couldn’t do so. Any power not given to the federal government was to be turned over to the states to decide. That is, the federal government only has the powers granted in the writing of the Constitution.

The wording of the Tenth Amendment itself is a bit tricky. While other sections of the Constitution use the words explicitly or expressly when talking about governmental powers, the Tenth Amendment does not. This has been a source of controversy when it comes to its interpretation. Those who try to sneak the word in as though it always existed in the original document tend to be harshly criticized.

More examples of the Tenth Amendment:

“It would be nice if state and local power were more a matter of principle than politics, but I guess the 10th Amendment will take whatever support it can get.”
—David Davenport, “Battle Lines Are Redrawn as Democrats Rediscover the 10th Amendment and State Power,” Forbes (January 13, 2017)

“But when it comes to the amendment that has been the most ignored, misinterpreted or abused, few could argue against the 10th Amendment.”
—Tim Donner, “The 10th Amendment and revival of federalism,” The Washington Times (December 12, 2016)

“Nothing in the Tenth Amendment says that powers—such as power to regulate child labor as part of commerce, for example—must be explicitly or expressly given to the federal government.”
—Garrett Epps, “Constitution Myth #7: The 10th Amendment Protects ‘States’ Rights’,” The Atlantic (July 11, 2011)

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

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