Joseph Keppler’s cartoon on why we need the 17th Amendment

[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:

“The Bosses of the Senate,” by J. Ottmann Lith. Co. after Joseph Keppler Puck Lithograph, colored, 1889-01-23 From the collection of the U.S. Senate

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.


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:

Cartoon portraying the time needed to pass the 17th Amendment allowing the direct election of U.S. senators By Spencer, for the Omaha World Herald, 1912 Reproduced from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789­1989

Cartoon portraying the time needed to pass the 17th Amendment allowing the direct election of U.S. senators By Spencer, for the Omaha World Herald, 1912 Reproduced from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789­1989

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?



30 Responses to Joseph Keppler’s cartoon on why we need the 17th Amendment

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Why conservatives should love the 17th Amendment:


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Important update on the need for the 17th Amendment, from Washington Monthly:


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Pat Bagley at the Salt Lake Tribune, gets it; truth in cartoons. Februay 25, 2016:


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Well this anonymous “guest contributor” could be right.

    But I doubt it.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    This is encouraging — someone actually used this blog for a classroom project!

    A Prezi presentation on the 17th Amendment, very brief.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Wednesday to the last drop.


  7. Lilpump says:

    it is Wednesday, my dude…


  8. Lilpump says:

    Lil pump is not trash, whatever you say about his music, its god like. Eat [burro].


  9. Ed Darrell says:

    Still an issue; here with another Keppler cartoon:


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    Shaun? Nice guy.

    Whack job? His views are not that much different from many people in Utah, and way too many people nationally.

    He’s rational. But if you have a good way to reason him out of his positions, I’d love to hear it. Whack job or not, he’s in no danger of involuntary commitment, and he will vote in the next election.

    So will millions who believe as he does.

    Saving some Americans from their own insanities is a difficult task.


  11. JamesK says:

    Your friend, Ed, is a damn whackjob.


  12. Ed Darrell says:

    I wonder whatever happened to Black Flag? I imagine he’s somewhere high up in the Trumpistan government, having forgotten he said the black flag stands for “whatever is the opposite of surrender,” leading the surrender of the Pacific to China in trade and military, the surrender of Eastern Europe and Black Sea to Russia, and the surrender of America to the demons of our more troubled, less-charitable national soul.



  13. […] See Keppler’s 1889 cartoon on the same topic, a more famous cartoon […]


  14. […] Joseph Keppler’s cartoon on why we need the 17th Amendment […]


  15. […] Joseph Keppler’s cartoon on why we need the 17th Amendment […]


  16. Black Flag® says:

    You do not know what makes America good nor great.

    It does not become great with government. It degrades.
    It does not become great centralizing power that steals and robs the people for anyone else’s benefit.

    A patriot does not stand behind someone who destroys the freedoms of others, no matter who stands at the front.


  17. Black Flag® says:

    I do not concede anything, Ed.

    I do not give my power nor my rights to any man.


  18. Ed Darrell says:

    BF, you concede your power to run your life to ALEC, the GOP and the Koch Bros., and then accuse others of conceding, because we don’t agree with your concession?

    While we fight to vote to AVOID concessions of power, you fight to keep others from fighting against your own concession . . .

    Is LSD back in style?


  19. Ed Darrell says:

    It’s intellectually dishonest to carp about everything that makes America good and great, and then claim to be a patriot for doing so.


  20. Black Flag® says:

    Centralization of power always leads to distortions, no matter who is the center, Ed.

    That’s the issue with your belief system. You believe there are people who are better at running your life – and more so – the lives of others than the people themselves.


  21. Black Flag® says:

    It is so intellectually dishonest to say “if you don’t like it, move”.

    It is utterly a condemnation of others in their own desire for a better world and a condemnation of freedom to express differences.

    Shame, Ed.


  22. Ed Darrell says:

    Centralizing power in the rich business barons seems like a bad idea now, as it was in the 1890s.


  23. Black Flag® says:

    Any system which centralizes power will, inevitably, lead to an ever increasing corruption.

    The efforts to assign wealth to a few at the expense of the many naturally become less incumbered the fewer such assignments are necessary.

    To bribe one man who controls millions is easier then to bribe a thousand who control 1000 each.


  24. Ed Darrell says:

    Morgan, I staffed the Senate Labor Committee when Reagan created the block grants — suggested by the states, endorsed by the National Governors Association, resolutions from many state legislatures, and, as I recall, with full endorsement from ALEC.

    On the nefarious side, the block grants kept Great Society money flowing to the states, without the states having to increase taxes anywhere — states like that. Texas, Florida and Washington like to brag they have no state income tax, but the reality is that makes it damnably difficult to fund schools, roads, police, fire fighters, sewers, parks, and many other projects that make our nation livable, prosperous, and great.

    Reagan administration officials, stupidly, I thought, assumed the states would be very happy to save the money, and floated proposals to just zero out the programs.

    In reality, when we work together, in our towns, counties, and states, and as a nation, we can achieve much greater things than when we try to do everything on our own. You could not function without the communally-built electric grid, culinary water, sanitary sewer, municipal garbage collections, state roads, federal highways, etc., etc.

    It’s fun to talk about how state wouldn’t create such programs. But that’s exactly the problem. Tennessee Valley residents lived in deep poverty and disease, prior to TVA. Iowa farmers had it pretty rough, before REA. Wheat farmers went bust AND there was no flour for bread in the cities, before the wheat price stabilization program.

    No man is an island, and damned few are even functioning peninsulas.

    If you don’t want to achieve great things, maybe the USA is not for you.


  25. […] see Ed Darrell doesn’t want the seventeenth amendment repealed. His effort to explain why that is, is a fail, because his point is — as usual — some […]


  26. Perhaps the best example of the problem Black Flag tries to bring to your attention, is the block grant. Had the state governments’ interests been represented in Congress, as they should be according to the original design, it is unlikely any state would vote for a proposition that essentially says “we take your money away from you, and then give it back to you if you do things the way we want you to.”

    But, you say, we have these copper barons out there. They must lose power and influence — you always seem to be all about certain hated factions and individuals losing power and influence, for some reason — to make things equal for “farmers…laborers…downtrodden immigrants…” Just like the ObamaCare fiasco: Under inspection, it starts to look more and more like an effort to destroy something, all dressed up in costume as an effort to build something.

    With popular election of senators, we know exactly who is losing influence. It’s people you don’t like. Okay…who’s gaining the influence? From sea to shining sea, the public’s approval of Congress is constantly at a low. The general agreement that Congress is representing the intrerests of the people, also, is constantly at a low. So once again, the question must arise: Is this the picture of success? These are the results you have to offer as consequences of your cunning plan? Doesn’t seem to be working.


  27. Black Flag® says:


    The purpose of the Senate is to represent the interests of the STATES in federal government. The interests of the people rested in Congress.

    By overruling this – turned Federal politics into a position of superiority when the design was to make federal politics inferior to the choices of the individual states in matters that were not federal.

    Such a change of design centralized political power – making it more corruptible, not less.


  28. Ed Darrell says:

    Yes, the claim was that Adams and Clay had struck a “corrupt bargain,” the original use of the term.

    As best I know, there is no evidence of that bargain.


  29. britinla says:

    My recollection is that the corrupt bargain was between JQA and Henry Clay. It is certainly the case that Clay was named Secretary of State.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Mikels Skele says:

    So much of today’s power grabs are cloaked in populist terms, and, sadly, people are falling for it. Plus ca change…


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