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The U.S. Constitution's Seventeenth Amendment: Electing the Senate

The Framers of the Constitution didn’t trust the people. Under the original, unamended Constitution, the House of Representatives was the only directly elected body. Prior to the seventeenth amendment Article I, Section 3 provided that

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof . . .

The Senate was intended to balance the House in two ways:

  • By favoring the smaller states — because each state regardless of size is entitled to two senators. California with its population of 36 million has two senators, and Wyoming, with just over half a million, also has two senators.

  • By being selected by the state legislatures rather than directly elected by the people.

U.S. senators were originally seen as ambassadors of their states. The states kept their senators on a tight rein and actually instructed them how to vote on particular issues — something that never happened with members of the House, who were not chosen by state legislatures.

The system of state-appointed senators worked smoothly at first, but in the run-up to the Civil War, difficulties started appearing. The two houses of a state legislature didn’t always agree on who the senators from that state should be. Federal legislation required the winning candidate to have obtained a majority (more than 50 percent) in the state legislature, but some states allowed candidates to be declared elected when they had only a plurality of votes in the legislature (meaning more than any other candidate).

In the 1850s, one of the senate seats for Indiana was vacant for two years because of the inability of the Democrats and the fledgling Republican Party to work together. The situation got a lot worse as the 19th century drew to a close. Between 1891 and 1905, there were no fewer than 45 deadlocks in 20 states. For four years Delaware had only one senator. In some states the legislature left the choice of senators to a popular referendum.

Between 1893 and 1902, popular pressure mounted for the Senate to be directly elected, and each year a constitutional amendment to that effect was proposed in Congress only to be defeated — not surprisingly — in the Senate. By 1913, such was the pressure on Congress that only one more state was needed to call a national constitutional convention.

The prospect of a national convention has always terrified Congress, because once a convention was summoned there was no guarantee that it would limit itself to considering the one amendment that had brought it into existence. It could well become a "loose cannon" destroying the whole carefully crafted fabric of the Constitution. The prospect of a national convention quickly galvanized Congress into action in 1913, and what became the Seventeenth Amendment was soon ratified, simply providing for the direct election of senators by the people of each state.

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