Every four years, voices are heard suggesting the Electoral College should go away and presidential elections should be decided only by the popular vote. We have come across this interesting article that struck us as a timely addition to the discussion:
“Was anything ever more absurd than the talk about the ‘direct election?’ The direct vote law passes and the happy citizen jumps up and down with joy…At last he can vote for the man of his choice. At last he can stand up a free citizen and select his own candidate…(But) when election day arrives he finds himself confronted with no rights other than to vote for one or two or more men who have named themselves, advertised themselves, exhibited themselves, trumpeted themselves, recommended themselves, impoverished themselves, and discredited themselves on the chance of securing the election. In short, the direct vote is not half so near a direct vote as the vote which the citizen case in electing a proper delegate…Delegated authority is the best authority that can be exercised in this country. The representation of the many by the few is absolutely the only form of possible government. Uneducated, illiterate people are able to vote intelligently for the members of a school board whose duty it should be to select teachers. Such voters would be wholly unfit to select teachers, but they may be very fit to select those who are fit to select teachers. And so it is that voters are unfit to draw a tariff bill, or select lawyers, or select artists and men of science, or select soldiers but they are able to vote for men who can make such selections wisely. The so-called direct vote…is a laughable contrivance as was ever made. It was designed for the purpose of making the…government a private snap for a few men.”
You have doubtless guessed this doesn’t quite match the discussion of voters electing members of the Electoral College who actually elect a president. It was written about whether voters who were competent enough to elect members of the legislature who in turn would elect U. S. Senators were competent enough to do it themselves. The Kansas City Journal ran it on March 5, 1911 at a time when a movement was well underway to give voters the opportunity to directly elect members of the United States Senate.
Direct election was “absurd” and a “laughable contrivance” then. Congress proposed the Seventeenth Amendment a year later. It went into effect in 1913 after ratification by the states. The first elections nationally took place in 1914. The first in Missouri was 1916 when former Governor William Joel Stone became our first popularly-elected U. S. Senator when he was chosen for his third term.
That’s right. We, the people, have been electing our U. S. Senators for only 44% of our history.
Why not? Because our founding fathers didn’t trust the people at large to make such a decision.
Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution said, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof…” The Constitutional Convention, trying to balance competing interests, decided this provision would make sure states had some control over the general government. Author Brion McClanahan, who has looked at the intentions of the founders as they wrote the Constitution, says they intended the senate to be an “aristocratic” chamber “to restrain the potential excesses of the ‘mob’ in the House.”
Harper’s Monthly Magazine published an account in 1884 that explains that idea. The authenticity of the story is questionable but it is often told to describe the intended differences between the House and the Senate in somewhat less antagonistic language than McClanahan uses. Supposedly George Washington, who favored a two-chamber Congress, and Thomas Jefferson, who it is said favored a unicameral approach, were discussing the issue when Washington asked Jefferson, “Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?” When Jefferson replied, “To cool it,” Washington responded, “Even so, we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” Critics say the conversation could not have happened because Jefferson was not at the convention but was in Paris as our Ambassador to France. Some people who appreciate antiques have noted that the story fits better in the late 19th century than in Washington and Jefferson’s time because saucers in the 18th century were more like small bowls while the saucers in the late 19th century had become more like those we use today.
But the sentiment is the same although the story seems apocryphal.
Suggestions that the Senate membership, as the House membership, should be based on population were countered by those who felt the Senate should be a place where all states would be equal—with two members each or, as Virginia’s George Mason put it, “The state legislatures…ought to have some means of defending themselves against encroachments of the national government” and their election of the members of one of the chambers of the national government would provide that balance. James Madison felt the system meant any national law required passage by one body chosen by the people and a second body representing the states. The founders felt the Senate was the only federal part of what they called the general government.
But Madison had a cautionary statement that has resonance for some people today: “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty, as well as by the abuses of power…and that the former rather than the latter is apparently most to be apprehended by the United “States.” He continued that the Senate could become “a dangerous preeminence in the government,” but before that could occur, the Senate would need to “corrupt itself; must next corrupt the state legislatures, must then corrupt the house of representatives, and must finally corrupt the people at large.”
A century later, the public concern about a couple of issues generated a movement to change the Constitution to allow direct election of U. S. Senators. One of the issues was deadlocks within legislatures. There had been times when legislatures could not agree, thus leaving some states only partially-represented in the Senate or not represented at all.
Missouri was an example. In 1850, Thomas Hart Benton sought another term but refused to accept the legislature’s demand that he support slavery. When the legislature met on December 30 to elect a senator, Senator Henry S. Geyer got 64 votes. Benton got 55 and anti-Benton Democrat (the party was divided) Henry S. Geyer got 37. Former Congressman and later Governor Sterling Price had a single vote. The deadlock remained after five days, then a week, then twelve days. Anti-Benton forces broke ranks on January 22 when Senator (later Governor) Robert Stewart took votes into the Geyer column on the fortieth ballot. Benton still have 55 but Geyer now had 80 and became Missouri’s next U.S. Senator.
Corruption also was a concern with allegations that some elections were “bought and sold” in legislatures.
The first proposal for popular election was offered in 1826. President Andrew Johnson strongly advocated it in 1868. The Populist Party made it a platform issue in 1892. Oregon allowed it in 1908, then Nebraska. Ten states also were holding advisory elections to let their legislatures know popular sentiment. The U. S. House passed direct election resolutions several times only to see them die in the Senate. Thirty-three states had created Senatorial primary elections by 1912 and twenty-seven states had called for an amendment to the Constitution. Congress proposed an amendment that year. Missouri, on March 7, 1913, became the 30th state to ratify. Six states have never ratified the Seventeenth Amendment—Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, and Virginia, but they have direct elections just like the rest of us.
So that’s why you and I and a few million others—not the legislature—will decide who will be our other U. S. Senator next year, the Founding Fathers notwithstanding. History indicates that by then we will be so focused on that contest that the Electoral College issue will have slipped well into the background.