Against the Seventeenth Amendment
In an otherwise excellent article about the U.S. Senate (“The Sense of the Senate,” February 21), William Voegeli errs in saying that “the Lincoln–Douglas debates were the first step on the road to the Seventeenth Amendment,” which provided for the election of senators by the people of each state, and that “the Seventeenth Amendment had the unintended consequence of reaffirming the distinct role of the states, as such, in discharging governmental responsibilities and engaging the people in self-government.” His reasoning is that during the debates, Lincoln and Douglas, as candidates for the federal Senate, had to encourage citizens to vote for state legislators who shared their views on federal issues — and this turned the state’s “legislative elections into proxy fights over national policy on slavery and the western territories.”
It is a stretch to assign a cause-and-effect relationship to the Lincoln–Douglas contest and the amendment, two events separated by 55 years, since the former occurred during the gathering slavery crisis and was thus anomalous, and the latter was a product of a “progressive” intellectual movement (see Thomas Sowell) that would have seemed alien to both Lincoln and Douglas. Further, that the Lincoln–Douglas debates forced candidates for the Illinois legislature to declare themselves on federal issues was a good thing.
The people who elect senators should be the very ones who have to concern themselves with “discharging governmental responsibilities and engaging the people in self-government” at the state level — that is, state legislatures. If that were the procedure today, perhaps we would not face a real threat of nationalized medicine. Instead of being a check on democracy run amok, the Senate is a body of 100 squabbling, self-interested politicians with campaign chests stuffed by public-employee unions, lawyers, etc.
Voegeli also cites the difficulty of stalemated senatorial elections — in which the houses of a state’s legislature are run by different parties and cannot agree on a senator — but this problem could have been resolved more moderately in 1913 simply by excluding the lower houses of state legislatures from the process. Or maybe it isn’t a difficulty at all, since the stalemated state is the one that’s forgoing representation as the fight drags on, and it has the power to remedy the situation.
Robert D. Francis
William Voegeli replies: I am sympathetic to the conservative argument, ably presented by Mr. Francis, that the Seventeenth Amendment is one more lamentable Progressive idea we should unwind if we could. The authors of the Constitution were wise; however, they were not clairvoyant. They did not anticipate that the ethic of deference that gave them so much latitude in Philadelphia in 1787 would yield to enthusiastic and widespread engagement in self-governance. The Illinois contest in 1858, in which politicians urged citizens to vote for state legislators solely on the basis of their partisan commitment to sending either Abraham Lincoln or Stephen Douglas to the U.S. Senate, reflected this political transformation. The logic of the Lincoln–Douglas race lent itself to electing senators directly. It was the first clear sign that Americans wanted to close the constitutional space created by the indirect election of senators, and the Seventeenth Amendment was the culminating manifestation of that desire.