17th Amendment

Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are often associated with individual rights, but they also play a crucial role in shaping the government itself. The 17th Amendment, ratified during the Progressive Era, is a prime example of this. It fundamentally changed democracy in America, shifting power from state legislatures to the people. But why was it created, and what makes it so significant? Join us for a summary of the 17th Amendment, its historical context in the Progressive Era, and its enduring significance today. Let's dive into this 17th Amendment summary!

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Table of contents

    17th Amendment: Definition

    What is the 17th Amendment? Usually overshadowed by the historical significance and impact of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the 17th Amendment is a product of the Progressive Era in U.S. history from the turn of the twentieth century. The 17th Amendment states:

    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.

    When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such 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.

    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.1

    The most important part of this Amendment is the line “elected by the people thereof,” as this Amendment changed Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution. Before 1913, the election of U.S. Senators was completed by State legislatures, not a direct election. The 17th Amendment changed that.

    The 17th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1913, established the direct election of Senators by the people, rather than by state legislatures.

    17th Amendment National Archives Image of the Seventeenth Amendment StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Seventeenth Amendment from the U.S. National Archives.

    17th Amendment: Date

    The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed Congress on May 13, 1912, and was later ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures on April 8, 1913. What changed from 1789 with the ratification of the Constitution to 1913 that caused such a shift in the function of electing Senators?

    17th Amendment passed by Congress: May 13, 1912

    17th Amendment ratification date: April 8, 1913

    Understanding 17th Amendment

    To understand why this fundamental change occurred, we must first understand the sovereign forces and tensions in creating the U.S. Constitution. Known to most as the debates between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, the issue can be boiled down to want entity in the government held most of the power: the states or the federal government?

    In these debates, the federalists won the argument for the direct election of members of Congress to the House of Representatives, and the Anti-Federalists pushed for more state control over the Senate. Hence, a system that elects Senators through state legislatures. However, over time voters in the United States expressed their desire for more influence on elections, and slowly direct-election plans began to erode some state power.

    “Direct Election” of the President… kind of.

    In 1789, Congress proposed a Bill of Rights limiting its legislative power, mainly because Americans voiced their desire for such a bill in the previous year's ratification process. Many state legislatures refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution without a Bill of Rights. Members of the First Congress understood that if they refused to heed the people’s message, they would have to answer for that refusal in the next election.

    So, after presidential parties began to solidify after the Election of 1800, state legislatures generally found themselves tied to their constituent's desire to have the right to choose presidential electors. Once the popular election of electors became relatively common in the states, states that withheld this right from their people found it increasingly difficult to justify denying them that right. So, although nothing in the original Constitution or other amendments formally required the direct popular election of each state’s presidential electors, a strong tradition of the direct election emerged by the mid-1800s.

    17th Amendment: Progressive Era

    The Progressive Era was a period of widespread social activism and political reform in the United States from the 1890s to the 1920s, characterized by the adoption of direct democracy and measures to promote social welfare. The 17th Amendment, which established the direct election of Senators, was one of the key political reforms of the Progressive Era.

    From the mid-1800s to the turn of the twentieth century, states began experimenting with direct primary elections for Senate candidates within each party. This Senate-primary system mixed the original legislative selection of Senators with more direct input from the voters. Essentially, each party - Democrats, and Republicans - would use candidates to influence voters to vote their party into control of the state legislature. In a way, if you prefer a particular candidate for Senate, vote for that candidate's party in the state elections to ensure they are selected as senators.

    This system was in effect in most states through the early 1900s, and though it opened up some direct connections between voters and Senators, it still had issues. Such as if a voter preferred the Senator but then had to vote for a local candidate of the same party whom they did not want, and this system was vulnerable to disproportionate state districting.

    17th Amendment President endorsing US Senate Candidate StudySmarterFig. 2 - Before the 17th Amendment, a scene such as this would never have occurred, a sitting U.S. President campaigning and endorsing a candidate for U.S. Senate, such as President Barrack Obama does above for Massachusetts U.S. Senate Candidate Martha Coakley in 2010.

    By 1908, Oregon experimented with a different approach. By enacting the Oregon Plan, voters were allowed to directly express their preferences when voting in the state's general election for members of the U.S. Senate. Then, the elected state legislators would be oath-bound to select the voter’s preference, regardless of party affiliation. By 1913, most states had already adopted direct election systems, and similar systems spread quickly.

    These systems continued to erode any vestige of state control over Senatorial elections. In addition, intense political gridlock often leaves Senate seats vacant as state legislatures debate over candidates. Direct elections promised to solve these problems, and supporters of the system championed elections with less corruption and influence from special interest groups.

    These forces combined in 1910 and 1911 when the House of Representatives proposed and passed amendments for the direct election of Senators. After removing language for a “race rider”, the Senate passed the Amendment in May 1911. Over a year later, the House of Representatives accepted the change and sent the Amendment to the state legislatures to be ratified, which occurred on April 8, 1913.

    17th Amendment: Significance

    The significance of the 17th Amendment lies in the fact that it brought about two fundamental changes to the U.S. political system. One change was influenced by federalism, while the other was influenced by the separation of powers.

    Freed from all dependence on state governments, modern senators were open to pursuing and championing policies that state officials may not like. Concerning constitutional rights, not being connected to state governments allowed direct-elected senators to be more open to exposing and rectifying the wrongdoings of state officials. Thus, the federal government proved more inclined to displace state laws and impose mandates on state governments.

    With these unintended changes, the Seventeeth Amendment could be considered one of the “Reconstruction” Amendments following the Civil War, enhancing the federal government's authority.

    17th Amendment Warren G Harding StudySmarterFig. 3 - Warren G. Harding was elected as an Ohio Senator in the first class of senators elected under the system of the Seventeenth Amendment. Six years later, he would be elected president.

    In addition, the transformation of the Senate also affected the separation of powers by adjusting the Senate’s relations with the House of Representatives, the presidency, and the judiciary.

    • As for the relationship between the Senate and the House, after 1913, Senators could now claim to be the people’s choice as they could not before. Claiming a mandate from the people is powerful political capital that was now enhanced for Senators.

    • Regarding the relationship with the Judiciary, the Supreme Court remained the only branch with no direct election for office after the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment.

    • As to the power between the Senate and the presidency, the shift can be seen in Senators running for president. Before the Civil War, eleven of fourteen presidents came from the Senate. After the Civil war, most Presidential candidates came from influential state governorships. After the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, the trend returned, establishing Senatorship with a platform for the presidency. It made candidates more aware of national issues, sharpening their electoral skills and public visibility.

    In summary, the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution established the direct election of Senators by the people, rather than by state legislatures. The amendment was a response to political corruption and concerns about the influence of powerful business interests in state legislatures during the Progressive Era.

    Before the 17th Amendment, Senators were chosen by state legislatures, which often resulted in deadlocks, bribery, and corruption. The amendment changed the process and allowed for direct popular election of Senators, which increased transparency and accountability in the political process.

    The 17th Amendment also had significant implications for the balance of power between the federal government and the states. Prior to the amendment, Senators were beholden to state legislatures, which gave states more power in the federal government. With the direct popular election, Senators became more accountable to the people, which shifted the balance of power toward the federal government.

    Overall, the 17th Amendment was a major milestone in American political history, increasing democratic participation and transparency in the political process, and shifting the balance of power toward the federal government.

    Did You Know?

    Interestingly, since 1944, every Democratic Party Convention, excluding one, has nominated a current or former senator as its vice-presidential nominee.

    17th Amendment - Key takeaways

    • The Seventeenth Amendment changed the election of U.S. Senators from a system in which state legislatures elect the senators to a method of direct election by the voters.
    • Ratified in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment was one of the first amendments of the Progressive Era.
    • The Seventeenth Amendment was adopted by passage by a super-majority in the House of Representatives, a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
    • The passage of the Seventeenth Amendment fundamentally changed the government and political system of the United States.

    References

    1. “17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Direct Election of U.S. Senators (1913).” 2021. National Archives. September 15, 2021.
    Frequently Asked Questions about 17th Amendment

    What is the 17th Amendment?

    The 17th Amendment is an amendment to the US Constitution that established the direct election of Senators by the people rather than by state legislatures.

    What is the purpose of the 17th Amendment?

    The purpose of the 17th Amendment was to increase democratic participation and accountability in the political process.

    When was the 17th Amendment ratified?

    The 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

    Why was the 17th Amendment created?

    The 17th Amendment was created in response to political corruption and concerns about the influence of powerful business interests.

    Why is the 17th Amendment significant?

    The 17th Amendment is significant because it shifted power away from state legislatures toward the people.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What year was the 17th Amendment ratified? 

    The 17th Amendment changed how the U.S. elects ____________. 

    True or False, before 1913, most states had some form of direct election system for the U.S. Senators. 

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