This Is Progress?!

Elihu Root, bw photo portrait, 1902.jpg  Elihu Root

April 8, 1913, marks the anniversary of the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution. That’s the amendment that took the power of choosing U.S. senators from the state legislatures and gave it to the voters in mandating the direct election of U.S. senators.

The whole impetus for the drastic change was the alleged control of senators by dishonest state legislators and “trusts.” Proponents of the amendment portrayed senators as “bloated millionaires placed in their high position by the manipulation of state legislatures by the ‘trusts.'” (Clarence Carson, The Growth of America: 1878-1928, p. 178) Their arguments were based on the absurd premise that the people were incapable of electing honest state legislators from their own small districts but were somehow eminently capable of electing honest U.S. senators in state-wide races. (It’s similar to the argument that an individual can’t be trusted to know what is best for his own well-being but once elected to a governing body is qualified to tell everyone else what’s best for them.) Direct popular election would supposedly end undue influence by wealth, business interests, and corrupt individuals.

Proponents were riding a populist and progressive wave of reform that promised to make everything better for everyone. They also gave us the Federal Reserve System and the federal income tax that same year. But those are subjects for another time.

Opponents of the amendment were few but included such prominent statesmen as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Elihu Root. Root had served as not only a U.S. senator but also secretary of war under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt and secretary of state under Roosevelt.

The Senate, Root argued, “was to be a body more secure in tenure, different in the manner of its election, different in its responsibility, more conservative, more deliberate than the other House.” (Root, Addresses on Government and Citizenship, p. 260)

So, how has this “progressive reform” worked out for us? Are our senators more honest? Are they uninfluenced by big money or big business? And what effect has the change had on our government’s working? Is it functioning as the Founders intended?

The Seventeenth Amendment produced an imbalance of power. The Founders so structured the government to provide checks and balances so that although all entities–the people, the state governments, and the national government–were represented; no one entity could dominate. The people were represented and empowered in several ways: directly by their election of the state legislators and the national representatives and indirectly by their election of the president and vice president through the Electoral College. The state governments were represented and empowered by their respective legislatures’ selection of their states’ U.S. senators.

The Founders had a healthy fear of pure democracy, so they gave us a republic. That gave the people some voice in government–in part direct and in part indirect–but all based on the rule of law, not on popular whim. The Seventeenth Amendment, however, put more power in the hands of the people and took away all representation of the state governments. In effect, the states became mere agents of the federal government with no voice in the national government. Once that “obstacle” to federal power was removed, the sky was the limit as far as what government would try to do.

Historian Clarence Carson wrote, “No other amendment to the Constitution has done so much to unsettle the structure of government conceived by the Founders.” (p. 176) In 2014, Ted Cruz stated more precisely the problem created by the amendment: “There’s no doubt that [the Seventeenth Amendment] was a major step toward the explosion of federal power and the undermining of the authority of the states.” (www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2014/02/05/271937304/rethinking-the-17th-amendment-an-old-idea-gets-fresh-opposition)

The Founders were wise men–much wiser than the bunch of Washington politicians in 1913 or today. We should be extremely reluctant to mess with what the Founders gave us lest we sow the wind of “progressive” changes (like the Seventeenth Amendment) and reap the whirlwind of more government and less freedom.

A story goes that someone asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had given the nation, to which he replied, “A republic–if we can keep it.”

The Seventeenth Amendment is just one example of how we have not kept that wise and good government the Founders gave us. Most tyrants gain power by force. If we Americans are not careful, we will elect our tyrant. We will deserve what we get, but I venture to say that we won’t like it once we get it.

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