Michael Fusco, Copy Editor
Senators, as described in the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 3, were originally chosen by each state’s legislature. The Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, changed that process and prescribes that senators from each state be “elected by the people thereof.” This amendment, exemplifying the motivations in the Progressive Era to expand democracy and populism at the expense of republicanism and federalism, moves away from the intended system of American government.
Congress’s two chambers were each unique in their capacity and purpose. Members of the House of Representatives serve directly to represent, in the federal government, the voice of the people in their districts. Hence representatives are popularly elected and serve two-year terms, so the people can better choose representatives as interests, factions, and motivations change.
Since each state has equal representation in the Senate (two senators), that body offered a place where states, on equal standing, could decide on measures concerning national policy that best fit the majority of the states rather than the majority of the people. Senators, more insulated from public whims given their six-year terms, would be better poised to provide Presidential counsel, confirm appointments to high federal offices, pass treaties, and, working with the House, consider declarations of war.
In the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, Fisher Ames described senators as “ambassadors of the states,” who would serve to promote the state’s interests and preferences in the Union. Ultimately, the Senate involved all three levels of government: communities elect representatives to the state legislature which in turn selected representatives to the national legislature. Most importantly, the state legislatures had a voice in the federal government through their senators.
With popularly elected senators, the body now caters to the people, like the House, and no longer serves as a connection between the federal and state governments. The Seventeenth Amendment dissolves a senator’s obligation to represent his or her state’s policy agenda set by the state legislature. Therefore, fewer senators fight federal encroachment of state sovereignty. Rather, passing legislation popular among the people trumps a senator’s judgement on its impact on the union of states.
Protecting the sovereignty of the states ultimately protects the sovereignty of the people, since people have more control in their own affairs at the state level. Although it may seem counterintuitive, promoting more democratic institutions jeopardizes the republican style of government that makes the American experiment unique. Expanding democracy, as the Seventeenth Amendment does, gives more power to the people at the cost of undermining the checks within the federal structure.
James Madison, the most distinguished proponent of republicanism, deliberates the original Constitution and original Senate in Federalist 37: “The first question that offers itself is whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican. It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”