With the autumnal equinox looming large on the calendar, We, the People of Massachusetts, will soon thereafter be called upon to elect (or re-elect) a Senator to represent our interests in the upper house of the United States Congress.
T’was not always thus.
Those among you who stayed awake during Mrs. McGuffey’s 9th Grade History class will recall that, until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, U.S. Senators were (per Art. 1, Sec. 3 of the Constitution) chosen by state legislatures, not elected directly by the people as at present.
The most contentious issue facing the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the long, stifling summer of 1787 was the question of suffrage; how many legislative representatives were to be chosen, and by whom and for how long? The larger states demanded representation consistent with size, while the smaller ones held out for numerical equality irrespective of geographical footprint or population.
The convention was deadlocked, and in danger of collapse, when Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed what came to be known as “The Great Compromise”: a bicameral legislature with the lower house being directly elected based on population size, and seats in the upper house filled by two senators from each state, chosen by the state legislatures. This latter stipulation was deemed essential to the “federal” character of the new government, i.e., the sharing of power by the national and the state governments. Maintaining such political equilibrium has been a shaky and sometimes lethal balancing act for the past 225 years.
By 1826, reformers were beginning to question the democratic legitimacy of a non-popularly-elected Senate, and calls for a direct-election amendment began to be heard. However, nothing resulted at the time or when it was tried again in 1829 and 1855 during the Jacksonian Democracy era.
With the Gilded Age (in Mark Twain’s sardonic coinage) in full noxious bloom by the 1890s, industrialization was producing the sort of huge fortunes and equally large disparities of wealth and power that are the breeding ground for corruption and political malfeasance. The “Millionaires’ Club” (as the Senate was then pejoratively known) was not immune to such influences. We look, for example, at “Copper King” William Andrews Clark who bribed the Montana legislature to secure a U.S. Senate seat, but was caught out before taking office. Then there was Nelson W. Aldrich, the most powerful chairman in the history of the Senate Finance committee who became enormously rich by easing tariff legislation for his cronies in the oil, tobacco and sugar trusts, but stumbled in his bid for a 5th term when his proffered $200,000 bribe failed to get him re-elected.
A contemporary fable about Grover Cleveland had it that that his wife woke him up one night crying: “Wake up! There are robbers in the house.” The president replied: “I think you are mistaken. There are no robbers in the House, but there are lots in the Senate.”
Coincidentally, the era spawned the doctrine of social Darwinism, promoted by the writings of William Graham Sumner and others, which preached a survival of the fittest dogma that the ability to acquire wealth is an evolutionary marker of genetic superiority.
And then there were the deadlocks in the state legislatures that occurred regularly when the lower house was in the hands of one party and the upper house another, and neither could agree on a senatorial candidate. Even more frequent than instances of outright corruption, 71 such standoffs resulted in 17 senate seats going unfilled for an entire legislative session or longer. Needless to say, other important state matters went unattended to, and often lesser qualified candidates were selected in desperate last ditch efforts to reach a compromise.
These goings on did not fail to catch the attention of reformers, and the ‘90s saw the ascendancy of the Populists, a potent alliance of western agrarian and eastern labor interests who had not been invited to the party. Trust-busting presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were elected to office in 1901 and 1909 respectively, ushering in the historically significant Progressive Movement, the effects of which are still felt today.
By 1912, the electorate, fed up with the excesses of wealth and power exhibited over the preceding several decades, pressured Congress to pass an Amendment providing for the direct election of Senators, and by the following year it had done so. Overwhelmingly ratified by the states, the 17th Amendment became law on April 8, 1913.
Gone missing in all this ferment was the venerated concept of federalism; the formal presence of state influence in Washington. The role of the states as equal partners in the governing of the nation was ever after diminished. Formerly, state legislatures could, and did, instruct their U.S. senators how to vote; but no longer. Ralph A. Rossum, writing in the San Diego Law Review, notes that the debate over the amendment’s adoption lacked “any serious or systematic considerations of its potential impact on federalism…The popular press, the party platforms, the state memorials, the house and senate debates, and the state legislative debates during ratification focused almost exclusively on expanding democracy, eliminating political corruption, defeating elitism and freeing the states from what they had come to regard as an onerous and difficult responsibility.”
With the 17th Amendment, our great experiment in democracy had passed another stress test, as it had oft-times before, and most certainly will have to again.
This article was originally published under my byline in the 9/7/12 issue of The Barnstable Patriot.