The 17th Amendment to the US Constitution: Election of Senators

US Senators Were Appointed by the States Until 1913

Painting of Henry Clay addressing the US Senate, circa 1830
Senator Henry Clay Addresses the Senate, Circa 1830. MPI / Getty Images

On March 4, 1789, the first group of United States senators reported for duty in the brand new U.S. Congress. For the next 124 years, while many new senators would come and go, not a single one of them would have been elected by the American people. From 1789 to 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, all U.S. senators were chosen by the state legislatures.

The 17th Amendment provides that senators should be directly elected by voters in the states they are to represent, rather than by the state legislatures.

It also provides a method for filling vacancies in the Senate.

The amendment was proposed by the 62nd Congress in 1912 and adopted in 1913 after being ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the then 48 states. Senators were first elected by voters in special elections in Maryland in 1913 and Alabama in 1914, then nationwide in the general election of 1914.

With the right of the people to choose some of the most powerful officials of the U.S. federal government seemingly such an integral part of American democracy, why did it take so for that right to be granted?

Background

The framers of the Constitution, convinced that senators should not be popularly elected, crafted Article I, section 3 of the Constitution to state, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.”

The framers felt that allowing the state legislatures to choose senators would secure their loyalty to the federal government, thus increasing the Constitution’s chances of ratification. In addition, the framers felt that senators chosen by their state legislatures would be better able to concentrate on the legislative process without having to deal with public pressure.

While the first measure to amend the Constitution to provide for the election of senators by popular vote was introduced in the House of Representatives in 1826, the idea failed to gain traction until the late 1850s when several state legislatures began to deadlock over the election of senators resulting in lengthy un-filled vacancies in the Senate. As Congress struggled to pass legislation dealing with momentous issues like slavery, states’ rights, and threats of state secession , the Senate vacancies became a critical issue. However, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, along with the long post-war period of reconstruction, would further delay action on the popular election of senators.

During reconstruction, the difficulties of passing legislation needed to reunite the still-ideologically divided nation were further complicated by Senate vacancies. A law passed by Congress in 1866 regulating how and when senators were chosen in each state helped, but deadlocks and delays in several state legislatures continued. In one extreme example, Delaware failed to send a senator to Congress for four years from 1899 to 1903.

Constitutional amendments to elect senators by popular vote were introduced in House of Representatives during every session from 1893 to 1902.

The Senate, however, fearing the change would diminish its political influence, rejected them all.

Widespread public support for change came in 1892 when the newly-formed Populist Party made the direct election of senators a key part of its platform. With that, some states took the matter into their own hands. In 1907, Oregon became the first state to select its senators by direct election. Nebraska soon followed suit, and by 1911, more than 25 states were selecting their senators through direct popular elections.

The States Force Congress to Act

When the Senate continued to resist the growing public demand for the direct election of senators, several states invoked a rarely-used constitutional strategy. Under Article V of the Constitution, Congress is required to call a constitutional convention for the purpose of amending the Constitution whenever two-thirds of the states demand it to do so.

As the number of states applying to invoke Article V neared the two-thirds mark, Congress decided to act.

Debate and Ratification

In 1911, one of the senators who had been popularly elected, Senator Joseph Bristow from Kansas, offered a resolution proposing the 17th Amendment. Despite significant opposition, the Senate narrowly approved Senator Bristow’s resolution, largely on the votes of senators who recently had been popularly elected.

After long, often heated debate, the House finally passed the amendment and sent it to the states for ratification in the spring of 1912.

On May 22, 1912, Massachusetts became the first state to ratify the 17th Amendment. Connecticut's approval on April 8, 1913, gave the 17th Amendment the required three-fourths majority.

With 36 of 48 states having ratified the 17th Amendment, it was certified by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan on May 31, 1913, as part of the Constitution.

In total, 41 states eventually ratified the 17th Amendment. The state of Utah rejected the amendment, while the states of Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia took no action on it.

Effect of the 17th Amendment: Section 1

Section 1 of the 17th Amendment restates and amends the first paragraph of Article I, section 3 of the Constitution to provide for the direct popular election of U.S. senators by replacing the phrase “chosen by the Legislature thereof” with “elected by the people thereof.”

Effect of the 17th Amendment: Section 2

Section 2 altered the way in which vacant Senate seats are to be filled.

Under Article I, section 3, the seats of senators who left office before the end of their terms were to be replaced by the state legislatures. The 17th Amendment gives the state legislatures the right to allow the state’s governor to appoint a temporary replacement to serve until a special public election can be held. In practice, when a Senate seat becomes vacant near the national general election, the governors typically choose not to call a special election.

Effect of the 17th Amendment: Section 3

Section 3 of the 17th Amendment simply clarified that the amendment did not apply to Senators chosen before it became a valid part of the Constitution.

Text of the 17th Amendment

Section 1.
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

Section 2.
When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

Section 3.
This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

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Longley, Robert. "The 17th Amendment to the US Constitution: Election of Senators." ThoughtCo, Nov. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/text-of-the-17th-amendment-in-the-us-constitution-105385. Longley, Robert. (2017, November 1). The 17th Amendment to the US Constitution: Election of Senators. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/text-of-the-17th-amendment-in-the-us-constitution-105385 Longley, Robert. "The 17th Amendment to the US Constitution: Election of Senators." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/text-of-the-17th-amendment-in-the-us-constitution-105385 (accessed November 18, 2017).