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Morton: Senators weren't always elected by us

On this day (May 13) in 1912, Congress passed a bill that called for direct popular election of senators, which when ratified became the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The June 12, 1911, vote in the House of Representatives was 238-39, with 110 abstentions, and the May 13, 1912, Senate vote was 64-24, with four abstentions.

This amendment superseded Article I, Section 3, Clauses 1 and 2 of the Constitution under which senators were elected by the state legislatures. It also allowed state governors to make temporary senatorial appointments until special elections could be held.

The framers of the Constitution intended that the Senate would represent the states whereas the House of Representatives would be “The People’s House.” The framers thought that the Senate would “take a more detached view of issues coming before Congress,” that it would “temper” the “populism” of the popularly elected House of Representatives, that it would allow the states to retain a direct representation in the national government (as it had under the discredited Articles of Confederation), that it would provide a much-needed state check on the power of the national government, and that it would inevitably be composed of the better educated, more politically experienced and wise men of society – men who would not have to cater to the whims and prejudices of the “uneducated masses.”

Interestingly, Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson was the only delegate at the Grand Convention who proposed electing senators by popular vote, and his motion to that effect was soundly defeat, 10-1. However, in the 19th century, there were numerous, but always unsuccessful attempts in Congress to enact a constitutional amendment to mandate the direct election of senators. By the early 20th century, however, this movement had gained considerable support.

By 1910, 31 of the 48 state legislatures had passed motions calling for the direct popular election of senators. That same year, 10 Republican senators who opposed this reform measure were defeated in re-election campaigns.

Maverick Sen. William E. Borah of Idaho, former Republican Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana, and three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska led the fight in Congress and in the press for this increasingly popular manner of electing senators.

The proponents of this reform measure argued that the U.S. Senate had become “a sort of aristocratic body – too far removed from the people, beyond their reach, and with no special interest in their welfare;” further, that election through state legislatures was an anachronism that was contrary to the wishes of the American people.

There were, however, eminent opponents to this reform measure. Several prominent senators (most notably Republicans Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Elihu Root of New York) opposed the measure on the grounds that it violated the intention of the framers who wanted the states to have a  direct say-so in the national government and that it, therefore, destroyed the “Federalism” (i.e., the allocation of political power to both the national government and the states) so laboriously fashioned in the original Constitution.

By April 8, 1913, the proposed amendment had been ratified by three-fourths – 36 of the 48 states – of the states. Of interest, four states ratified after April 8, 1913 – Louisiana (June 11, 1913), Alabama (April 11, 2002), Delaware (July 1, 2010) and Maryland (April 1, 2012). Seven states (Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia) have not voted to date on the proposed amendment.  One state – Utah – explicitly rejected the amendment.

On May 31, 1913, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan triumphantly declared that the 17th Amendment was officially and formally adopted.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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