“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.”
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, explains the purpose of having US Senators and the reason they were originally appointed by the State legislatures. Madison believed that in order for the States to protect the freedom of their citizens, they must be active participants in the affairs of the Federal government. Here are Madison’s words:
“Whenever power may be necessary for the national government, a certain portion must be necessarily left with the states, it is impossible for one power to pervade the extreme parts of the United States so as to carry equal justice to them. The state legislatures also ought to have some means of defending themselves against the encroachments of the national government. In every other department we have studiously endeavored to provide for its self-defense. Shall we leave the states alone un-provided with the means for this purpose? And what better means can be provided than by giving them some share in, or rather make them a constituent part of, the national government?”
I like how Madison started out by saying "Whenever power may be necessary for the national government..." because he is implying that the national government does not always need power. The state legislatures, he says, must have a means of defending themselves against the encroachments by the federal legislature and the best way to do that is to give the states a mechanical function within the federal legislature. That is the purpose of the Uited States Senate- to jealously guard the jurisdiction of the states. So now, in those cases in which the federal government does need to exercise power, it can only do it with the advise and the consent of the states; if the states approve, the senate will approve.
According to Article 1 Section 3, prior to the ratification of the 17th amendment, United States Senators were chosen by the Legislatures of the States; this provided the States with the appropriate means of defense. This method of establishing Senators by appointment would do a tremendous service for protecting the sovereignty of the individual States in more than one way. First of all, the office of United States Senator would be an appointed position made by elected state legislators, thus encouraging the Senator to follow the orders of the state if for nothing more than the sake of job security. In Federalist No. 62, James Madison said that select appointments were recommended for the purpose of:
“Giving to the state governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government, as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.”
By allowing the States to appoint their own Senators, the Individual State would then have the necessary means of defending itself against the encroachments of the national government. The Constitution provides other resources for the protection of State sovereignty, but as Madison pointed out, what better means can be provided to the protection of the States then by making them an actual mechanical part of the workings of the national government; establishing Senators whose duty is bound to their State and not the nation as a whole. An appointed Senator would be given the office by the elected State legislatures and sent to the Federal government in Washington DC to be a check on the Federal government; duty bound to represent and protect the sovereignty of his State from federal encroachments.
Another reason behind the appointment procedure is so that if the Senator was not representing the will and the sovereignty of the State, then the State legislature could convene and remove him from office and appoint another in his place to serve a term of six years. In other words, although US Senators served six year terms, they could be “hired and fired” if necessary in order for each State to maintain its individual sovereignty. I have heard Americans voice their disappointment time and again when their Senator ignores them; refusing to hear them or represent them in Washington DC. The only solution anyone ever has to this predicament is to wait until the six year term of the wayward Senator expires and then vote him out of office. Our Founding Fathers had a better idea however when they drafted the Constitution. Before the 17th Amendment, US Senators would routinely meet with State legislatures in order to discuss the goings on of the federal government and the states positions on the various issues. The Senator was in a position where he must act on behalf of his State alone and not the influence of lobbyists, friends, the President or even a political party; he almost had to be a statesman or else he may lose his job.
Here is something else to think about, prior to the ratification of the 17th amendment, US Senators never had to raise millions of dollars in order to campaign for an election. This eliminated all kinds of problems that pertain to temptation, corruption, making campaign promises that they never intend to keep as well as all the baggage that goes into becoming and staying popular. The role of the United States Senator is to protect the sovereignty of his individual State so that the State legislatures can operate freely based on the will of the people that elected them. This is the only way to maintain the principle of governing with the consent of the governed, and our Constitution is structured to ensure citizen consent from the federal level all the way down to the State and even local levels. Considering the original process by which US Senators were seated, I think is it fair to assume that state legislatures would be seen as more important than they are given credit for today and thereby encourage more government participation at the State level.
With the ratification of the 17th amendment, we have allowed the duty of United States Senators to blow with the political wind away from the States and into whatever means of security they think will keep them in office. The 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the States on April 8th, 1913. The first sentence reads as follows:
“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.”
When the States ratified the 17th amendment to the US Constitution, a fundamental change took place that was for the most part completely unintended. To put it simply, the unfortunate change was the turning of Senators from statesman into politicians. Instead of being duty bound to the sill of the state government, US Senators are now duty bound to the party, the popular ideas or even emotional trends. The problems with the 17th amendment have even been recognized by US Senators including one from Georgia, former US Senator Zell Miller, who stated from the floor of the Senate:
“Direct elections of Senators…allowed Washington’s special interest to call the shots, whether it is filling judicial vacancies, passing laws, or issuing regulations.”
With the ratification of the 17th amendment, the American people have thrown the United States Senator from off the principled pedestal of statesmanship and into the arena of power politics. Although the process by which we place our Senators has changed, one thing has not changed- why we have them.
In my humble opinion, it does not matter so much how our senators are chosen near as much as the character of the senators we choose; the job description of a US Senator has not been amended or repealed, they are still there to protect the sovereignty of the states; we just need to make sure they understand that.
Copyright 2012 by Paul Curtman, Don't Tread On Me! The Constitution and State Sovereignty.