Lesson from the Movement to Pass the 17th Amendment

[People Directly Elect U.S. Senators]

Since the U.S. Constitution was ratified in the 18th century, over 11,000 amendments have been proposed but only 27 have had enough popular and congressional support to be enacted. The 17th amendment, the direct election of senators by vote of the people instead of appointment by state legislatures, became an amendment in 1913 after nearly a decade of proposals.

James Wilson, a constitutional lawyer from Pennsylvania proposed the idea of direct election of senators at the constitutional convention but was ultimately ignored1. The framers thought that allowing state legislatures to choose senators would create legislators who would be focused on their work instead of demands from voters2. The system operated relatively smoothly until about 1855 when disagreements between party members within states and inconsistencies in how each state elected senators led to empty seats for upwards of four years3.

The issue resurfaced nearly half a century after the constitution’s ratification with a proposed amendment by Representative Henry R. Storrs from New York, along with a second effort ten years later. Five more proposals were introduced in the House between 1850 and 1852. Each of these was sent to a committee and died4.

Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the U.S., proposed the direct election of senators’ amendment while serving in the House of Representatives in Tennessee in 1857. His amendment also included ending the Electoral College and limiting Supreme Court Justices to a 12-year term5. 

Movement for the amendment grew as more problems arose under the system. In 1855, clashes between the two parties left Indiana’s senate seat empty for two years and in the 1860s6 the inconsistencies between the state’s electoral process led congress to pass regulations for how and when senators could be elected, including the provision that senators be elected by majority7. Bribery and intimidation were also increasing problems8. Nine bribery cases at the state level were brought forward between 1866 and 1906 along with 45 cases of deadlock between 1891 and 1905 -- one of which left Delaware without a senator for 4 years. These series of difficulties ultimately lead to voters sending a petition to the House of Representative proposing popular election in 18709.

By 1876, the question of popular election of senators was a hot topic and people were proposing an amendment during every congressional session. One of the proposals had a preamble stating that the reason this change was necessary was due to the senate’s attempt at interfering with the president’s power to remove officials. In 1888 alone there was 25 different proposals for the direct election of senators. Among other provisions included in direct election of senate amendment proposals was using proportional representation to determine the number of senators for each state.

The amendment passed the House during congressional sessions between 1893 and 1902, but ultimately died in the Senate. Senator Charles Henry Van Wyck of Nebraska in 1896 made the first ever senate speech about the after he had just lost re-election in his state legislature despite the Nebraska voters favoring him10.

Building a popular movement for the amendment were populist and progressive reformers.

Direct popular election of senators was a plank of the Populist Party’s 1892 “Omaha Platform”11 with Populist Party candidates raising the issue during their campaigns. The populist William Jennings Bryan who first ran for President in 1896 said direct election of senators was needed to "[a]waken, in the senators...a more acute sense of responsibility to the people", since it had become "a sort of aristocratic body – too far removed from the people, beyond their reach, and with no special interest in their welfare”12.

Notable support for the amendment by Progressive Era reformers took the form of the series “Treason of the Senate” in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1906 by Progressive muckraker David Graham Phillips. The series exposed the powerful and corrupting role of large corporations and state legislators in selecting U.S. senators. This series in credited with generating sufficient public outrage in finally pushing through the Senate’s resistance against the amendment13.

Introduction of constitutional amendments by sympathetic Congressmen was just one approach to push for direct election of Senators. Reformers employed four additional parallel strategies – all at the state level – to increase political pressure and leverage.

The first was state legislative resolutions. Thirty-one state legislatures passed resolutions by 1910 calling on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment for direct election14.

Second, Senate candidates who opposed direct election of Senators lost their seats. Ten Republican Senators who opposed reform were forced out of their seats in 1910 alone due to public pressure and state legislative actions. This was a "wake-up call to the Senate"15.

Third, state legislatures passed laws allowing for popular “non-binding” votes for Senators. These advisory referenda provided powerful democratic guideposts on who state legislators should select as Senators. Twenty-nine states used this approach to pick their Senators by 1912 with these Senators once elected/chosen advocating for a constitutional amendment16.

Finally, state legislators passed measures calling for an Article V constitutional convention. The Constitution allows for a constitutional convention when 2/3rds of state legislatures call for one. Twenty-seven states had already passed such legislation with four more likely on the way, which would meet the threshold. Fearing the implications of a convention, Congress, including the Senate, finally acted17.

Senator Joseph Bristow again proposed an amendment in Congress in 1911. It first passed the Senate, then the House. It was sent to the states, which ratified it in 1913. The 17th Amendment was put into effort for the 1914 election year.

Implications for current Move to Amend constitutional amendment strategies

Our We the People Amendment campaign strategy, like the strategy for ratification of the 17th Amendment, must be multi-track. Without a national referendum provision of the US Constitution, popular pressure on Congress must be both direct and indirect.

Direct public pressure is essential via individual lobbying for an amendment and making support for an amendment a reason to support or oppose the (re)election of federal officials. Indirect pressure in the form of organizational and municipal/state legislative endorsements and pledges by local and state legislators for the We the People Amendment amendment is essential, as are credible threats represented by state legislatures in calling for an Article V constitutional convention if Congress refuses to act.

In both cases, constant education and communication exposing the ever-increasing number of corporate abuses against people, communities and the environment is essential toward building a politically powerful movement with the necessary clout to enact the We the People Amendment. 


1 Perrin, J. (1910). Popular Election of United States Senators. The North American Review, 192(661), 799-804.
2 "Senate Historical Office." U.S. Senate: Direct Election of Senators. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2016.
3 "Senate Historical Office." Ibid.
4 Perrin, J. (1910). op. cit.
5 Perrin, J. (1910). op. cit.
6 Perrin, J. (1910). op. cit.
7 "Senate Historical Office." U.S. Senate: Direct Election of Senators. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2016.
8 Perrin, J. (1910). op. cit.
9 "Senate Historical Office." ibid.
10 Perrin, J. (1910). op. cit.
11 "Senate Historical Office." Ibid.
12 Bybee, Jay S (1997). "Ulysses at the Mast: Democracy, Federalism, and the Sirens' Song of the Seventeenth Amendment". Northwestern University Law Review. Northwestern University School of Law. 91 (1).
13 "Senate Historical Office." 1878: Treason of the Senate. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2016.
14 Bybee, Jay S (1997). ibid.
15 Bybee, Jay S (1997). ibid.
16 "Senate Historical Office." Ibid
17 Rossum, Ralph A. (1999). "The Irony of Constitutional Democracy: Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the Seventeenth Amendment". San Diego Law Review. University of San Diego School of Law. 36 (3).

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