Story by Fred Horne '18
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote . . .
The Senate as established in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution was a great bastion of federalism. Equal representation of every state and the election of Senators by state legislatures both ensured that the states remained the fundamental unit of American government. The election method especially ensured the states’ continued power, because Senators elected by state legislatures implicitly represented the state-based opinions and interests of those legislatures. At its heart, however, the provision that state legislatures elect Senators reflects the Framers’ elitism. They thought that the “cream of the crop,” to whom the people had already entrusted their state governments, were better informed and could choose better Senators than the people at large. The same presumption motivated the creation of the Electoral College, though it has long since lost any power to shape the states’ votes.
This state-focused, elitist view did not survive the 19th century. Between 1792 to 1856, every state abolished property qualifications for white men to vote. Advances in transportation and communication tied the nation together, turning the focus of the people from their states to their nation. The era of Andrew Jackson saw the common man seize his full role in democracy, discrediting the elitist republic of Alexander Hamilton. The 14th amendment penalized the states for denying suffrage to any adult male citizens; the 15th forbade denial on the grounds of race or previous servitude.
The corruption of the Gilded Age only intensified this desire for popular democracy. By the late 19th century, corruption was so rampant in state legislatures that they were regularly bribed to elect rich industrialists to the Senate, making the Senate a “millionaires’ club” unresponsive to the people. Moreover, deadlock in state legislatures often resulted in no candidate being elected and the state’s Senate seats lying unoccupied for an entire session or more. In 1892, the People’s Party was formed to “restore the government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people.’” It demanded direct election of the President, Vice President, and Senators, among other proposals intended to remove government from the hands of the wealthy elite. Although the party collapsed in 1896, the Democrats took up the torch of direct election in 1900 and joined the throngs who called for change.
The states started moving toward direct election of Senators in response to these circumstances. Many states amended laws to allow the people to unofficially designate their preferred candidates, with 31 states introducing unofficial direct election by 1912. The House of Representatives, more closely attuned to the people, passed an amendment allowing for the direct election of Senators in 1894, 1898, 1900, and 1902, defeated each time in the Senate. Finally, the Senate bowed to the inevitable in 1912, and 17th amendment was ratified in 1913.
This amendment caused a fundamental shift in the Senate. Direct election introduced candidates who sought the voters’ endorsement and so listened to the people, not simply the coin purse. Today it may seem like an obvious amendment, the sort of thing where we wonder why it took so long to pass but give it little note. In truth, the 17th was one of the more important moves toward democracy that our government has ever made.