The U.S. Congress and the 17th Amendment

Before I entered college, I looked at the issue of the popular election of U.S. Senators as an improvement to the Constitution. The people were now in charge of directly electing who would be their Senatorial representatives, a step-up from the undemocratic way of selection by state legislatures. However, once I started reading more works by political philosophers, it made more sense to me as to why the framers of the Constitution constructed the Senate in the unique way that they did. This topic has been on my mind for a long time, and this conference allows me the opportunity to research it in detail.

The first question I want to answer is why did the framers set up the Senate differently than the House. The representation of the states was a major point in the construction of the Senate, but there were other factors involved. Did they believe that an aristocratic portion of the government would control the excesses of democracy? The prominent political theorists of the day, Montesquieu, Locke, Harrington, etc., all supported a government with a mix of elements that was harmonious with natural law. According to these men, America’s framers set up the Senate as the more deliberative body of the legislature; that the aristocratic elements of the Senate would guide the country in the right direction. So why did it change? Why was there a movement to popularly elect Senators? Did it come from progressives who viewed that a greater amount of democracy in our government would be more beneficial? Claims of corruption and bickering in the state legislatures also motivated the change.

After researching why aristocratic elements were placed in the government, my aim is to then show how the 17th Amendment has altered American government. With senators being elected by the people, many questions arise regarding their loyalties to both the institution and their constituents.  I know that this topic has been researched by people in the past, but hopefully with a historical angle from the works of political philosophers, I can bring a unique contribution to the debate.

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2 Responses to The U.S. Congress and the 17th Amendment

  1. Kirstin says:

    First off, I think you’re smart to focus on the Senate in particular. It is interesting that members of the more powerful branch would be seated by electoral vote. Leaders at the time were very wary of mob rule, so it makes sense under that context. Though we had done away with the crown and parliament (rule by the aristocracy), it seems that political thinkers still feared what the real implications of democracy were…primarily that people would vote passionately–not pragmatically–and therefore, votes could be easily bought by someone running for office.

    Therefore, you may want to consider the nature of disfranchisement, as it had been a common theme throughout American history. Universal white male suffrage only came about under Andrew Jackson (Jacksonian Democracy). Previously, men had to own a certain amount of land or taxable property to earn the right to vote (a tradition from England). The thought was that men with property had a stake in society and would not vote passionately. The discussion of allowing African American men to vote in the South following the Civil War follows the same line of reasoning. Consider women as well.

    While I would not make this your focus, obviously, it might be something worth considering. Essentially, keeping people from directly electing their senators (and therefore, their most influential representatives) is a form of limiting the power of the people. Disfranchisement wouldn’t be your focus by any means, but looking into the philosophy that informed it and the justification may help in understanding why there was a difference between the seating of Senate and House members.

  2. Parry VanLandingham says:

    Harvard Law School just hosted a conference where scholars and politicians discussed the possibility of holding an Article V constitutional convention to amend the Constitution in the near future. I know you are focusing specifically on the 17th Amendment, but I still think the videos (forthcoming) from the conference might be interesting for you to check out. Here’s the link: http://www.conconcon.org/

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