Guest Essayist: Ralph A. Rossum, Ph.D., the Salvatori Professor of American Constitutionalism at Claremont McKenna College

Amendment XVII:

1: 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 electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

2: When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

3: This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

Seventeenth Amendment

The Seventeenth Amendment replaced the Constitution’s original indirect election of the U.S. Senate by state legislatures with direct election by the people; it was approved by the Congress on May 12, 1912, was ratified by the requisite three-fourths of the state legislatures in less than 11 months, and was declared to be a part of the Constitution on May 31, 1913.  Not only was it ratified quickly, it was ratified by overwhelming numbers: In 52 of the 72 state legislative chambers that voted to ratify the Seventeenth Amendment, the vote was unanimous, and in all 36 of the ratifying states, the total number of votes cast in opposition to ratification was only 191, with 152 of these votes coming from the lower chambers of Vermont and Connecticut.

While state ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment came quickly and easily, approval by the Congress did not. The first resolution calling for direct election of the Senate was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 14, 1826. From that date until the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment 86 years later, 187 subsequent resolutions of a similar nature were also introduced before Congress, 167 of them after 1880. The House approved six of these proposals before the Senate reluctantly gave its consent.

By altering how the Senate was elected, however, they also altered the principal mechanism employed by the framers to protect federalism.  The framers understood that the mode of electing (and especially re-electing) senators by state legislatures made it in the self-interest of senators to preserve the original federal design and to protect the interests of states as states. This understanding was perfectly captured by Alexander Hamilton during the New York Ratifying Convention on June 24, 1788, when he explicitly connected the mode of electing the Senate with the protection of the interests of the states as states. “When you take a view of all the circumstances which have been recited, you will certainly see that the senators will constantly look up to the state governments with an eye of dependence and affection. If they are ambitious to continue in office, they will make every prudent arrangement for this purpose, and, whatever may be their private sentiments or politics, they will be convinced that the surest means of obtaining reelection will be a uniform attachment to the interests of their several states.”

Hamilton’s arguments to the contrary, notwithstanding, the states quickly and overwhelming ratified an amendment that removed the principal structural means for protecting the original federal design and the interests of the states as states. Four factors explain why they did so.

The first was legislative deadlock over the election of senators brought about when one political party controlled the state assembly or house and another controlled the state senate. Prior to the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, there 71 such legislative deadlocks, resulting in 17 senate seats going unfilled for an entire legislative session or more. These protracted deadlocks often led to the election of “the darkest of the dark horse” candidates, occasionally deprived the affected states of representation in the Senate, always consumed a great deal of state legislative time that was therefore not spent on other important state matters, and powerfully served to rally the proponents of direct election.

A second factor was the political scandal that resulted when deadlocks were occasionally loosened by the lubricant of bribe money.  While corruption was proved to be present in only seven cases of the 1,180 senators elected from 1789 to 1909, these instances were much publicized and proved crucial in undermining support for the original mode of electing senators.

A third factor, closely related to the second, was the growing strength of the Populist movement and its deep-seated suspicion of wealth and influence. It presented the Senate as “an unrepresentative, unresponsive ‘millionaires club,’ high on partisanship but low in integrity.”

And, when Populism waned, Progressivism waxed in its place, providing a fourth (and ultimately decisive) factor: The Progressives believed that the cure for all the ills of democracy was more democracy. Their goal was, as Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in his 1912 campaign book The New Freedom, for government to be not only “of, by, and for” the people, but “through the people.”

Ralph A. Rossum, Ph.D. is the Salvatori Professor of American Constitutionalism at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of a number of books  including Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the Seventeenth Amendment, Antonin Scalia’s Jurisprudence: Text and Tradition, and American Constitutional Law (8th edition).

May 15, 2012 

Essay #62