In Miss Gonser’s eighth grade social studies class, we had to learn the purpose of each amendment to the Constitution. The 17th amendment provides for the direct election of senators, and I remember at the time thinking that this was a pretty trivial and uninteresting amendment. I have lately learned more about the history of this amendment, which turns out to be far more interesting than I had thought.
Our founders spent quite a bit of time contemplating the Senate and how it should work. The story is told that Thomas Jefferson was Ambassador to France at the time and thus was absent for most of the negotiations. When he returned, he talked to George Washington and asked why on earth the Senate had been created. In reply, Washington pointed out that Jefferson had just poured some of his tea out of his cup and into the saucer. Washington asked why, and Jefferson replied, “To cool it off.” Washington said, “That’s why we created the Senate.” The upper chamber was designed to cool the fiery passions expected in the House of Representatives.
We are all familiar with the decision that senators would be elected for six year terms, and that one third of the senators would be up for election every two years to prevent rapid swings in the composition of the body, but I hadn’t realized that originally, senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote. Although the intent was that the senators would stay above the political fray, the country rapidly fell into the partisan politics that has so often characterized the government. For example, in Virginia, Patrick Henry who controlled the state legislature, not only blocked the election of James Madison to the Senate, and instead substituted his own political allies for the spots, but he also attempted to interfere with Madison’s election to the House. Since Madison helped to shape the Constitution, he was arguably actually the most qualified man in Virginia to serve in the new federal government.
A senator had considerable political influence in his home state because of the Senate’s role in approving nominations to federal appointments. Through the spoils system, named for “to the victor go the spoils,” a successful candidate rewarded his supporters with federal posts and the accompanying salaries, thus buying votes in the state legislatures. The political parties reinforced this system as party bosses arranged for themselves or their designated candidates to be elected to the Senate. In the 1880’s, a British historian commented on the number of very rich men in the U.S. Senate, saying, “Some are senators because they are rich; a few are rich because they are senators.”
As early as 1826, a bill was introduced in the House to allow for “direct” election of senators, meaning that the population of a state would get to vote for their senators, just as they voted for their representatives. Needless to say, that bill went nowhere in the Senate. It took another 88 years before a Constitutional amendment was ratified by the required three-quarters of the states and in 1913 became the 17th amendment. No longer would deadlocked legislatures result in long term vacancies in the Senate, and the influence of the party bosses began to wane
The change in election format was accompanied by complaints from political analysts that the Senate had become much more like the House- swayed by popular opinion and populated by a less exalted character of man, both in stark contrast to the intent of the framers of the Constitution. Certainly there were a considerable number of retirements resulting from the change, since seats that had formerly been secured by influencing a few score state representatives became far less reliable in general elections.
As I was learning about this history, I was particularly struck by the role of money in the process. The framers of the Constitution had considered and rejected the idea that senators should own a certain amount of land or have a certain amount of wealth, but the influence of money in the election of senators from the state legislatures still became significant. Although we have been electing senators by popular vote for the past century, personal wealth still plays a significant role since changes in campaign finance rules make it easier for a wealthy individual to finance his or her own election run. Thus wealth often trumps individuals with a genuine skill or passion for government. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)