May 31, 1913— Following ratification by 36 of the 48 states then in the Union, as Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan certified one of the most important measures of the Progressive Era, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed for direct election of U.S. senators.
The Founding Fathers crafted Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution calling for election of U.S. Senators by state legislatures. By this means, they hoped to give stakes in the newly created republic a stake in the fledgling federal government. At the same time, they hoped that such legislators—elected at one remove from the people (the Founders were not crazy for direct democracy) –would cool the passions of the House of Representatives, whose members were directly elected by the populace. With each state given two votes in the Senate, all would be equal, neutralizing the advantage of larger states in the Union at that point, such as New York and Virginia.
It all sounded fine in practice, and for awhile it even seemed to work. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America even praised the Senate for its “monopoly of intelligence and talent.”
That might have seemed reasonable at the time, amid an age dominated by the Senate’s “Great Triumvirate” of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. But even in the instance of Calhoun (who would re-enter the Senate shortly, after a brief stint as Vice-President under Andrew Jackson), the reality was darker. He was elected by a legislature that itself was elected largely through large property owners, with poor, unpropertied whites having heard any voice and with African-Americans, of course, in far dire straits. Moreover, by the end of his life, he represented a region – the South -- whose influence should have, according to its share of the population of the time, been less than it possessed.
Though the first bill calling for direct Senate elections was introduced in 1826, the movement picked up momentum in the post-Civil War period. In my home state, New Jersey, a donnybrook erupted in 1866 over the election of John Stockton, when opponents charged that he’d been elected by a plurality rather than a majority of the legislature.
But worse was to follow. The Industrial Revolution created Gilded Age magnates who’d bribe an entire legislature without batting an eye. Between 1866 and 1906, the U.S. Senate was forced to deal with nine—count ‘em, nine—bribery cases involving state legislatures. And those were just the ones that were publicly known. The nation’s foremost deliberative body might as well have just hung out a “for sale” sign. In addition, vacancies were going unfilled for long periods—45 deadlocks occurred in 20 states from 1891 to 1905 alone.
Many Senators undoubtedly wanted to keep the means by which they had been elected in the first place. But the combined effects of an inability to conduct business without a Senate body fully staffed and undiverted by investigations, a strain on their legendary comity (working on so many bribery cases would have caused a lot of bruised feelings), and media stories such as “The Treason of the Senate” run by publisher (and aspiring politico) William Randolph Heart all brought a gradual change of minds.
The Populist Party made direct Senate elections a part of its platform, and within a decade Progressives such as Robert M. LaFollette, George Norris, and William Borah were pushing the idea. In 1911 Senator Joseph Bristow of Kansas introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment. The idea was opposed in the Senate by regional blocs in both parties: Southern Democrats (who, despite the passage of additional Jim Crow legislation, were still insanely afraid of the influence of African-American voters in direct elections) and Republicans throughout New England, New York and Pennsylvania, who not only would lose valuable money from industrials but would be suddenly exposed to the wrath of immigrant workingmen they had dissed. Eventually, however, the idea won out.
To me, the most interesting test of the new amendment came in 1916 in Massachusetts, involving Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. Most American history students know him as the canny Senate leader whose opposition to America’s entry into the League of Nations doomed Woodrow Wilson’s dream of peace. He is also recalled, like his great friend Theodore Roosevelt; as an arch-imperialist and advocate for enhanced naval power, as well as the first (unofficial) Majority Leader of Senate Republicans in the early 1920s; and as the patriarch of a political dynasty.
But I think he deserves at least a corner in any Hall of Infamy for his zenophobia. In 1881, he termed Irish emigrants “undesirable” and “hard-drinking, idle, quarrelsome and disorderly.” Nearly two decades later, he introduced a bill for “The Restriction of Immigration.”
In three elections, this unregenerate bigot won through the good offices of the Massachusetts state legislature. Now, following passage of the very amendment he opposed, he would, for the first time, directly confront a populace that contained a large proportion that he had dissed as being out of the American mainstream.
That year, the Democratic standard-bearer was John F. Fitzgerald. Two years before, his re-election campaign as mayor of Boston had come to a sudden end when the challenger, James Michael Curley, announced an “educational” lecture for the voters: “Great Lovers: From Cleopatra to Tootles”—a not-so-veiled reference to a blond cigarette girl widely rumored to have had an affair with the married “Honey Fitz.” Fitzgerald would never win another election, and with his enemy Curley in the mayor’s office he could not even count on a united voting bloc.
But opposition to Lodge was fierce enough that Fitzgerald gave the previously comfortable incumbent the most difficult campaign of his career. When the votes were counted, the proud senator had withstood the challenge by only a narrow margin, signaling that the supremacy of the Boston Brahmin in Bay State politics was coming to an end—a fact that registered unmistakably in 1952 and 1962, when his grandson and great-grandnephew, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and George Cabot Lodge, lost Senate campaigns to grandsons of Honey Fitz, John Fitzgerald and Edward Kennedy.
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