Whose Democracy? The 17th Amendment Changed How Senators Get to Congress

The 17th Amendment changed the nature of Congress


American citizens are used to heavily contested Senate races, such as the frenzy set off by Judge Roy Moore’s special election in Alabama. Bleating ads on tv, robo-calls to homes, blizzards of mail. Yet in the original Constitution, Senators were selected by state legislatures, not elected by the people. Why was that?


The original Constitution of 1787 included very little direct democracy, which would mean that citizens voted on laws directly. But they did not. For federal offices, citizens voted for only their member of the House of Representatives, and that’s it! Senators were selected by the state legislature, presidents were voted on by the electoral college, and Supreme Court justices were nominated by a president (whom the people do not elect) and confirmed for life by a Senate that the citizens did not elect!


Direct democracy was almost an epithet to America’s founders. But that would change, albeit slowly.



Can the people be trusted to make the right decisions?



Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson disputed whether decisions and laws should be made by the masses of people, or reserved to a trained and experienced body of elites. Jefferson took the side of populism and Hamilton chose elitism. Hamilton did not trust people to make the right decisions.


If US history is anything, it’s the constant expansion of the democratic base of participation. The ever-expanding right to vote. As America grew westward and its population increased, John Quincy Adams, followed by Andrew Jackson as president, took over the battle for the soul of the nation. Jackson spoke for commoners from the West while Adams represented eastern elites. Jackson is now synonymous with the “age of the common man.” Later, the US freed the slaves, expanding the right to vote. After that, it was women’s turn.


But senators were still the creatures of back-room politics. Secret deals behind closed doors. Senate seats were bought and sold by the industrial class. Senators took bribes from railroad companies in return for favorable treatments and laws. Senators were leased to the highest bidder and so were the nation’s laws, on things like tariffs, railroads, and labor protections. Surely this was not what the Framers intended, either.

17th amendment passes the Congress


By the turn of the century, America was headed in a different direction. To correct the worst abuses of the industrial age, new regulations arose from all political directions to protect consumers and workers. Reformers broke up urban political machines to make local government more honest. Government service required competency exams instead of just knowing someone in power. Cities were cleaned up, both physically and politically.


As part of that reform era, the direct popular election of senators was proposed.  After all, millions of immigrants had arrived since the Civil War, new citizens with little voice in national life. Congress resisted popular Senate elections, but relented under pressure from the state governments, who were prepared to amend the Constitution themselves, which is the long way to amendment.  Popular election of senators was ratified in 1913.


Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee tweeted that the 17th should be repealed.  So did Senator Ted Cruz, as well as Georgia Congressman Jody Hice. All contend that the 17th Amendment’s direct election of senators is just too much an intrusion on states’ rights and a distortion of original intent.

How much direct democracy do we want?


America faces recurring questions. Valid arguments cut both ways. I suggest that the answer is a blend. We need both decision-making systems, elitism and populism. Sometimes we want experts to make decisions for us. Passengers in a jumbo jet do not vote on which buttons to press in the cockpit. A trained and experienced expert makes those decisions for the people as the most competent authority. But politics is not the same because it is the passengers who decide where the plane is going. The experts make the technical decisions, but citizenry as a whole determines where to go. That’s the dialogue of democracy.


Democratic citizenship is hard. It requires thinking and reasoning people, who weave their back and forth between past and present, between abstractions and facts, theories and daily practices. Just a few real time examples:

  • Should states allow or restrict the vote to ex-felons?
  • How strict should voter ID laws be?
  • Should Congress create a “path to citizenship” for undocumented migrants to vote one day?
  • Will the influx of Puerto Ricans to Florida change the state’s demographics and voting outcomes?

The 17th Amendment changed the nature of Congress

The struggle continues


America emerged from the Revolution as a democracy for white men of wealth. For other groups, it was a struggle to have a voice in society.


Most every racial, ethnic, religious or cultural group at one time or another has been discriminated against. My point is that the struggle is dignified because its objective is dignified. An America that includes all of her people in the promise of liberty is the goal.


Thanks for reading. I hope that you enjoyed thinking about our history. It really matters in the future direction of this nation. Won’t you please share? Our newsletter has some exciting announcements too, so sign up today!