Among the many provocative things Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has said is that the American people “mistakenly empowered the federal government during a fit of populist rage in the early twentieth century . . . by changing the way senators are elected (the Seventeenth Amendment).”
In this column, we analyze why the Seventeenth Amendment—providing for direct election of U.S. Senators—came about, and whether it would be a good and/or workable idea, as Perry suggests, to repeal it.
The Original Constitution and the Provision for State Legislative Election of Senators
Most historians and legal commentators agree on the basic story of Senate election methods. In 1787, the Framers and ratifiers of the original Constitution chose legislative election largely to safeguard the existence and interests of the state governments.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut summed up the thinking of the Philadelphia Convention when he remarked:
“If it were in view to abolish the State [Governments] the elections ought to be by the people. If the State [Governments] are to be continued, it is necessary in order to preserve harmony between the National and State [Governments] that the elections to the former [should] be made by the latter.”
Proponents of legislative election also relied on a secondary (and less oft-invoked) justification—the notion that state legislatures would serve as filters of popular passion and elect a better class of people to the Senate than would be produced by direct election. As James Madison observed in Federalist No. 62, the selection of Senators by state legislatures has the advantage of “favoring a select appointment.”