by Michaela Crawford Reaves
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures.
When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.
This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.
Nineteenth-century industrialization created great wealth for a handful of powerful men. Their rapid rise to prominence caused the professional classes to fret over their loss of status and the lower classes to bemoan their role as cogs in the industrial machine. In response, labor unions gained in prominence, the farmers united in mutual benefit associations, and Social Gospel Protestants embraced a series of reforms, including child labor laws, federal control of interstate transport, and social hygiene efforts. Together, these interest groups became the Progressive movement. Increasingly they feared that moneyed interests were exploiting the government for their own benefit, even manipulating elections for federal senators through state legislative votes.
When the United States Constitution was ratified by all states in 1790 two distinct views dominated the idea of who should govern. The Federalists, who supported a strong central government, also supported the idea of educated and landed men having the greatest voice in its affairs. Conversely, the Anti-Federalists represented the “little man” or small landowner. The Federalist mindset gave the United States the Electoral College for choosing the president and placed the vote for the six-year senatorial terms in the hands of state legislatures. Although the trend toward universal manhood suffrage developed in the 1830s, graft, political chicanery and bossism still dominated and made it difficult to elect or replace a senator as groups in the states vied for political control. Efforts to correct this through the “Oregon system,” which committed legislators to honor the people’s elected choice, failed as graft trials continued.
Through amendments proposed in 1910 and 1911, congressional Progressives sought to rectify this problem by modifying Article 1, section 3, of the Constitution to allow the direct election of senators based on the popular vote. Finally, on May 13, 1912, the amendment was approved; it was ratified by the states on April 8, 1913. This change created a more representative democracy in the United States. When coupled with the “secret ballot,” then called the “Australian ballot,” American elections moved democratic ideals forward, limited bossism, and responded to the efforts of reformers toward a more direct democracy.
Michaela Crawford Reaves is a professor in the Department of History at California Lutheran University. She holds a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Reaves specializes in the cultural and social history of the United States.