April 8, 1913: Seventeenth Amendment is Ratified Allowing for the Direct Election of Senators
The Seventeenth Amendment was passed by Congress May 13, 1912 and ratified on April 8, 1913. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan certified the ratification on May 31, 1913. Once the Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, citizens had the right to directly cast ballots for their state’s two senators. The Amendment changed Article I, Section 3, clauses 1 and 3 of the Constitution that had previously stipulated senators were to be elected by state legislatures. By allowing for the direct election of senators, a barrier was removed between the people and the government that moved the U.S. closer to democracy and away from a republican form of government.
At the time the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, there was a clear apprehension toward monarchy but also an aversion toward democracy. The founders were suspicious of the capricious tendencies of the majority and considered democracy to be mob rule. With direct elections of members in the House of Representatives every two years, representatives could be swept into and out of office with great efficiency and would therefore bow to the will of the majority. If some interest that ran counter to the common good, but nonetheless gained the favor of the majority, the House would be ill-incentivized to look after the common good. The Senate, as it was not directly elected by the people, could be a check on the passions of the majority. In Federalist Paper #63 Publius wrote, “an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”
Prior to the formation of the United States it was assumed that republics could only be small in scale. James Madison refuted such luminaries as Baron de Montesquieu in offering a solution to the problem of scale by introducing multiple layers of checks and balances into a federal regime that included a check on democratic rule at the national level. With the senate serving as a bulwark against the threat of tyranny by the majority, every viable interest could be given representation in the national debate. Now that this bulwark has been replaced with democratic elections, the president is now the only elected official at the national level shielded—at least somewhat—from public opinion as the president is elected not by the people but through the Electoral College.
At the time the Constitution was being drafted, some in Philadelphia believed there was a strong push for states’ rights. The Articles of Confederation provided a weak central government and the new states were reluctant to give up their power to a central body as they had just thrown off the yoke of tyranny hoisted upon them by a centralized governing body. The election of senators by state legislatures was one way to assuage those concerns. In Federalist Paper #62, Publius writes, “Among the various modes which might have been devised for constituting this branch of the government, that which has been proposed by the convention is probably the most congenial to public opinion. It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government.” It was thought that the state’s interests would be represented in the Senate and popular interests would be represented in the House. With these sets of interests competing, the popular good would be represented in any bill that would be able to make its way through both chambers of congress. This was the very core of the theory of our constitutional government as envisioned and understood by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Both Madison and Hamilton argued that ambition should be made to counteract ambition and through the competition of ambitions the common good would be realized. It is only in republican government that the negative effects of faction can be mitigated and the positive aspects funneled into the realization of the common good. “The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater the number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.” (Federalist Paper #10).
The risks associated with democratization threaten the balance and principles republican regimes aspire to. Democracy aspires to nothing but its own will. Direct democracy offers too few safeguards against whimsy and caprice. In democracies, individuals are left to put their interests above all others and be guided by little more than immediate need as long-term planning is disincentivized.
Understanding the ramifications of further democratization is a timely topic as it is likely to be widely discussed in popular media in the upcoming presidential election. We see in every election a push for eliminating the Electoral College. With every passing election the cries for reform grow louder. Those who value republican principles should equip themselves to defend republican principles and institutions with evidence and theory and not rely on self-interest, cliché, or partisan allegiance. If interested, reread the Federalist Papers, but also, go back and read the press clippings from 1912-1913 and look for parallels to today. What you will find is a sense of connectedness with previous eras that will let the reader know these are permanent questions worth taking seriously.
Kyle Scott, PhD, MBA, currently works in higher education administration and has taught American politics, Constitutional Law, and political theory for more than a decade at the university level. He is the author of five books and more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles. His most recent book is The Federalist Papers: A Reader’s Guide. Kyle can be contacted at email@example.com.
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Kyle, is there an online resource where the ’12-’13 press clippings might be contained? Thanks, good concise summary or the dangers of direct democracy.
Ron, Thanks for your question and taking the time to read. The best free resource is at the Library of Congress: https://eresources.loc.gov/
Other resources require a subscription which most libraries offer.
For further reading on the 17th Amendment I would recommend The Road to Mass Democracy by CH Hoebeke. I have no affiliation to the author or publisher.