Andrew D. Nicholls, Ph.D., Professor of History
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History and Social Studies Education Department
David Carson, Ph.D.
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David Carson, Ph.D.
Steve Peraza, Ph.D
The passage of the Seventeenth Amendment helped to democratize the United States Senate and tied the legislative branch closer to the people, but it undermined the links between the state and the federal systems. Any thoughtful discussion on the Progressive Era will generally lead towards the idea of increased involvement of both the government, at all levels, in the lives of the general population, and the increased involvement of the general population in the functioning of the government at large. One seemingly obvious decision made in the early part of the 20th century was the implementation of the Seventeenth Amendment, which led to the direct election of United States senators. No longer would deals made in “smoky backrooms” and with corrupt state legislators have a say on who would represent state interests best at the national level. In its place would be an individual who would be more representative of the people’s will and ideological bend. The debates over the adoption and ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, in the popular press, the public, in state legislatures, and in Congress focus almost entirely on the expansion of democracy and the elimination of corruption, but did not have any real discussion on the impact on federalism and the original intent of the United States Constitution.
The motivation of this document is the discussion of the corruption in the era preceding the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment. The subsequent issue, and the primary problem to be considered, will be the issues of corruption that have happened since the adoption of the amendment, and if its adoption has had a positive, negative, or neutral effect on the Senate. Through the comparison of the pre-Seventeenth and post-Seventeenth Amendment eras, with assessments of moral, ethical, and legal issues senators have faced, it will be determined whether the Seventeenth Amendment had the effect on American society as it was calculated to accomplish, or if it was of minimal, or even detrimental, consequence on the comportment of the United States Senate and the actions of the federal government. These ideas will be investigated in order to see if malfeasance was and still is as common a concern as is typically understood.
Information and analysis was completed by using a wide array of primary and secondary sources. There are numerous newspaper and news magazine articles concurrent to specific situations from the eras debated. Historical, political science, and law journals give a wide range of contemporaneous attitudes and discussions among several professional fields, along with more current interpretations of past events. Traditional scholarly research, the venerated text The Federalist Papers, along with commentary from various senators, presidents (particularly Theodore Roosevelt), Supreme Court members, and primeval versions of investigative journalists add to the discussion through public dialogues, the consistent introduction of new laws, and the exposure of underhanded dealings that allowed corruption to apparently thrive for decades.
Ideas as to how to fix issues with the selection process of United States senators could have possibly lowered external influence on the legislative process without dramatically changing the Constitution, changes that will be shown to have had little real effect on how senators act. Instead of the “Captains of Industry” of years past, there are now lobbyists, corporate interests, and special interests doing much the same, but now referring to the system as fundraising instead of bribery. In conflict to most modern perceptions, it was seen as important to have direct elections of United States not because of fraud, nepotism, or blatant disregard of the law or tradition, but primarily because some states, at times, had years of no proper representation. Many state legislatures simply saw the amendment as was way to ensure proper representation for their state.
Janora, John Joseph, "The Seventeenth Amendment: The United States Senate and the Transformation from Legislative Selection to Direct Popular Election" (2018). History Theses. 45.