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The Road to Mass Democracy: Original Intent and the Seventeenth Amendment
  • Christopher H Hoebeke, World Maritime University

Until 1913 and passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, US senators were elected by state legislatures, not directly by the people. Progressive Era reformers urged this revision in answer to the corruption of state "machines" under the dominance of party bosses. They also believed that direct elections would make the Senate more responsive to popular concerns regarding the concentrations of business, capital, and labor that in the industrial era gave rise to a growing sense of individual voicelessness. Popular control over the higher affairs of government was thought to be possible, since the spread of information and communications technology was seen as rendering indirect representation through state legislators unnecessary. However sincerely such reasons were advanced, C. H. Hoebeke contends, none of them accorded with the original intent of the Constitution's framers.

The driving force behind the Seventeenth Amendment was the furtherance of democracy—exactly what the founders were trying to prevent in placing the Senate out of direct popular reach. Democracy was not synonymous with liberty as it is today, but simply meant the absolute rule of the majority. In full reaction to the egalitarian theories of the Enlightenment, and to the excesses of popular government under the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution's framers sought a "mixed" Constitution, an ancient ideal under which democracy was only one element in a balanced republic. Accordingly, only the House of Representatives answered immediately to the people. But as Hoebeke demonstrates, the states never resisted egalitarian encroachments, and had settled for popular expedients when electing both presidents and senators long before the formal cry for amendment. The Progressives' charge that a corrupt and unresponsive Senate could never be reformed until placed directly in the hands of the people was refuted by the amendment itself. As required by the Constitution, two-thirds of the Senate and three-fourths of the legislatures agreed to a provision which reformers claimed was against their political self-interest.

Since 1913, the Senate has become less of a deliberative body, but it is certainly no less scandalous. Big campaign money is more important than ever, and the average citizen does not really know more about the character and conduct of senate candidates than before direct elections. The Road to Mass Democracy addresses these and other issues relating to the triumph of "plebiscitary government" over "representative checks and balances." This work offers a provocative, readable, and often satiric reexamination of America's perennial insistence on redressing the problems of democracy with more democracy. It will no doubt find an audience among historians, political scientists, and general readers interested in the legacy of the founding fathers.

Publication Date
Citation Information
Christopher H Hoebeke. The Road to Mass Democracy: Original Intent and the Seventeenth Amendment. 2014New Brunswick, NJ(2014)
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