[Welcome, University of Houston students reading here for History 1306, American History after 1877. Please leave a comment on whether you find this entry useful, and other questions you may have.]
This is the cartoon:
One of my old high school classmates, Shaun McCausland, ran for the U.S. Senate in Utah in 2012, on the Constitution Party ticket. Nice kid, I felt an obligation to pay attention to what he was trying to do, even with his running against my old boss, Orrin Hatch.
I was surprised to find in his campaign materials he e-mailed me, a call for the repeal of the 17th Amendment.
What? That’s the amendment that gives us direct election of U.S. senators, instead of letting the state legislatures select them. Why repeal?
Shaun sent along an explanation, from Constitution Party materials, as I recall, claiming that the 17th Amendment was a “power grab” by industry and other oligarchist groups, to take power from the states. It was a move towards corruption, the material explained.
Seriously? People think that today?
History takes a different view.
Prior to the 17th Amendment, state legislatures selected the U.S. senators. Big corporate interests — the monopolists — figured this out in spades, and proceeded to buy state legislatures, thereby getting the right to name their friends to the U.S. Senate, in the perfect picture of a corrupt bargain (the charge originally aimed at the supposed deal between John Quincy Adams and
Daniel Webster Henry Clay, in which it was alleged Webster Clay got the House of Representatives to name Adams president, and Webster Clay was in turn appointed Secretary of State, the president-in-waiting post of that day).
Look at the cartoon. You’ll see the fat “bosses” sitting around the back of the senate chamber labeled, “Copper Trust,” “Steel Trust,” “Oil Trust,” and so on.
Consider Montana, Utah and Arizona. In each of those states, huge copper mines were among the leading businesses. The domes of the Arizona and Utah capitol buildings are capped with copper, in honor of the leading role the ore and mineral played in early state history.
Who got elected to the state legislatures in those states? Copper company-approved and -supported candidates won.
So, who was elected to the U.S. Senate, by the state legislatures? Copper company-approved senators.
In 1913, when Arizona joined the union, one could make a case that copper controlled at least 6 senators out of 96.
And so it was for other trusts, in other states — or a mixture of trusts in some states. Think of the trusts of the time — the copper trust, the steel trust, the steel beam trust, the nail trust, the coal trust, and many others.
The rich guys ruled.
While this system technically violated no laws in those campaign-contribution-limit-free days, it clearly affected legislation. The Progressive Movement arose as a grassroots movement, from farmers and laborers, from downtrodden immigrants, from the prairies, mines and mills. When enough people got involved, they could out vote the trusts in a few things — but it still took more than a quarter century to change the election process for the U.S. Senate, to keep the corruption out.
Politics of the times from 1900 to 1920 were complex, and can be oversimplified easily. Running that risk, let us note that by the time Woodrow Wilson took over the White House, reformers were maneuvering to fix problems in lots of areas, sometimes with great overreaches like the 18th Amendment and Prohibition, but also with long-needed reforms, and reforms headed in the right direction but not strongly or fast enough, like the creation of the Federal Reserve.
The 17th Amendment was intended to get corruption out of the U.S. Senate, especially the senator selection process. Instead of leaving the selection in the hands of corporation-captive state legislatures, the 17th Amendment expanded democracy, making the selection of U.S. senators a choice of the people of the state, at the ballot box.
Keppler’s cartoon, originally published in Punch Magazine, tells the story in one panel. It shows the U.S. Senate — very astute historians may be able to pick out and identify particular senators — with the chief door labeled “Monopolists’ Entrance.” Coming through the door, and lining the back of the Senate, are the “Bosses of the Senate,” moneybags with legs, or in one case an oil barrel with legs, and with the name of the trust written across the front of their nattily-dressed girths.
The senators turn to their bosses, awaiting instruction.
Inscribed on the wall at the back of the chamber is a twisted rendition of Lincoln’s stirring description of the government intended by the Constitution: “This is the Senate of the Monopolists by the Monopolists and for the Monopolists!” (Compare Keppler’s cartoon drawings of the U.S. Senate Chamber with photographs and drawings, if you can find them.)
There is a door to the galleries of the Senate, labeled “The Peoples’ Entrance.” It is barred, bolted and nailed shut, keeping out the American people.
Keppler’s cartoon was published January 23, 1889. Earlier reform attempts failed, in 1828, 1829 and 1855. Progressives including William Jennings Bryan, George Frisbie Hoar and Elihu Root pushed for reform in the 1890s. By 1910, some 31 states had passed resolutions asking for reform; some of them initiated direct primary elections, though that didn’t generally affect the selections by the legislatures. Partly to avoid a states-led convention to amend the Constitution, which could easily run rogue, critics feared, Congress took up the issue. Congress passed the amendment, submitting it to the states on May 13, 1912. By April 18, 1913, three-fourths of the states had ratified the proposal, and it was declared the 17th Amendment. Ironically, by that time Bryan had assumed the office of Secretary of State, and it fell to him to proclaim the amendment adopted on May 31, 2013.
The fat cats lost.
Please remember that.
- See another, later cartoon by Keppler on the same issue, about 15 years later.
- Somehow, National Review in its drive to be arch-conservative on everything, comes out in FAVOR of killing the 17th Amendment
- Slate, “Why the Conservative movement to repeal the 17th Amendment makes no sense” (No surprise: Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz wants the corruption back)
- Charles Pierce at Esquire, noting the rise of the 17th Amendment issue in Texas politics, “Everyone’s trying to out-crazy each other in the Texas Primaries”
- From the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), an explanation of the history of the 17th Amendment and its need, with several links to more sources on line from the holdings of NARA
- “What would the Senate look like in 2016 without the 17th Amendment,” Scott Bomboy, Constitution Daily, April 8, 2016; National Constitution Center
- 17th Amendment is one of the 100 Milestone Documents of the United States, a compilation by NARA
Another cartoon, by Spencer, for the Omaha (Nebraska) World, poking fun at the time required to get the 17th Amendment; from the U.S. National Archives, collected by Robert C. Byrd, Senate Majority Leader:
Nota Bene: Oh, to have a good copy editor. Clay, not Webster. How many years, how many thousand readers, before anyone read it as it was, and not as we expected it to be?