Originally, the Constitution called for the legislatures of each state to elect two senators. The Constitution did not specify how the legislatures were to elect them, it merely said the senators were to be “chosen by the legislature” of each state. In practice, the state legislatures usually chose the senators by a simple majority in each of the legislature’s two houses.
The Seventeenth Amendment introduced the direct election of senators by the electorate of each state. Those in favor of the amendment indicated two reasons for their support of it: first, they felt that the original system created opportunities for corruption; second, there had been several cases of deadlocked state legislatures which sent, for a period of time, no senator to the national capital because they could not agree.
Those opposed to the amendment noted that opportunities for corruption would also be present after the adoption of the amendment, and that the deadlocked legislatures remained so for relatively brief periods of time, after which a duly appointed senator was properly sent to the Congress.
The amendment also reduced the stability of the original system, in which representatives were directly elected and senators chosen by the state legislatures. The original system balanced the more-quickly changing opinions of the voters with the more stable configurations of the legislative bodies, whose blocs remained steady between elections.
In favor of the amendment were William Jennings Bryan, who at the time was Secretary of State, and William Randolph Hearst, who owned and controlled majors newspapers across the United States. Hearst was able to manipulate media coverage of discussion about the amendment prior to its adoption; Hearst’s influence was a decisive factor in moving both individual states and Congress to approve the amendment.
Opposed to the amendment were Elihu Root, who had been both Secretary of State and a member of the U.S. Senate, and George Frisbie Hoar, a senator from Massachusetts who died before the amendment was approved.
The net effect of the amendment’s adoption was to make the election of senators into a sort of national referendum. While the smaller size of congressional districts ensured that the direct election of representatives to the U.S House of Representatives remained a matter of local concern, the state-wide nature of senatorial races effectively removed local concerns from those races, and attracted political attention and campaign resources from out of state.
Before the amendment, local concerns dominated the selection of senators. After the amendment, out-of-state factors influenced senatorial elections to the extent that truly local matters, the matters which senators are supposed to represent in Washington, were nudged aside by national questions.
Mathematically, if there are senatorial elections in one-third of the states in a given year, then two-thirds of the states - or more precisely the political groups in two-thirds of the states - are free to direct their resources to the campaigns going on in other states. Thus out-of-state influence on what is supposed to be a local election might be twice the domestic influence.
The U.S. Senate, in the wake of the Seventeenth Amendment, changed its tone. No longer representatives of their home states, the senators were now representatives of nationwide political movements. The Senate thereby became a sort of “club,” as Matt Kibbe notes:
The filibuster, a last-ditch attempt by a single member of the Senate to stall consideration of legislation, has a storied history in legislative warfare. Typically, this roadblock has been used to defend the status quo inside the cloistered walls of the most closed, insulated institution in America - the U.S. Senate. They don’t call it a club for nothing: It’s a privileged cadre unaccustomed to the bright light of public attention. And that’s the way they like it.
The impact of the Seventeenth Amendment, transforming the Senate into a club-like atmosphere, had implications for many pieces of legislation, e.g., for the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Backed by President Eisenhower, the bill intended to clearly restate the voting rights of Blacks, and articulated specific measures to ensure that those rights were fully available for Blacks. Eisenhower’s popularity gave the bill reasonably good prospects of passage.
A truly representative body - i.e., a body in which the legislators represented the interests and opinions of the state which sent them to Washington - would have quickly passed with bill without objection. That’s what happened in the House of Representatives. But the Senate, in its post-Seventeenth Amendment condition, was different: the senators did not feel themselves compelled to represent their home states. They were representing political parties and interest groups - they were representing the powers which had put them into office.
And so it was that there was significant Senate opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Matt Kibbe continues:
The most infamous use of the filibuster, of course, was by Democratic senator Strom Thurmond, then a segregationist who famously fought against the the efforts of Martin Luther King.
Senator Thurmond organized and energized the senators from his party. If they could not stop the bill entirely, they would at least attempt to remove its most effective provisions.
Thurmond would later argue that “King demeans his race and retards the advancement of his people.”
The “civil rights movement” was in motion and had gained momentum during the early 1950’s. Eisenhower, during WWII, had desegregated the army’s combat troops, and during his presidency worked to systematically implement that desegregation throughout the armed services.
The momentum of the civil rights movement was strong enough that only a legislative body which had ceased to be truly representative of its home states could afford to oppose it. The House of Representatives, more closely reflecting the electorate, was more supportive of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. As Matt Kibbe notes,
In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education had ended “separate but equal” and started the process of integrating schools all over the country. A year after that, Rosa Parks famously refused to sit in the “blacks only” section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her bravery helped force racist government policies into the public psyche.
Contradicting the Supreme Court decision, contradicting public opinion, and contradicting the American voters, the Senate, now safely removed from public pressure, now clearly under the direction of lobbyists and political parties, was comfortable in its opposition to the civil rights bill.
On August 28, 1957, at 8:54 P.M., Thurmond took the Senate floor in opposition to major provisions of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He would not stop until more than twenty-four hours later. He denied that any blacks were being denied a right to vote and argued that every state already had sufficient voter rights protections in their existing laws. “I think it is indicative that Negroes are voting in large numbers. Of course, they are not so well qualified to vote as are the white people.”
Initiating a filibuster under any circumstances requires audacity, but Thurmond, and his fellow senators from the Democrat Party, were not only starting a filibuster, but doing so in direct contradiction to a clear and growing public opinion - the voters of the nation were affirming the civil rights movement in increasing numbers, and the Supreme Court had voiced itself in the Brown decision.
African-American political freedoms had fallen from the highpoints they had reached between the late 1860’s and the 1890’s. After enduring the humiliation of having their voting rights violated for several decades, Blacks demanded a return of their political liberties, and the majority of United States voters sided with them. But safely insulated from the pressure of having to represent their alleged constituents, the senators blithely moved in the opposite direction. Matt Kibbe writes:
To this day, Thurmond’s remains the longest verbal filibuster in U.S. history. Ultimately, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed the Senate and was signed into law, but not before Thurmond and his Democratic colleagues had stripped the legislation of key provisions.
In a masterpiece of political deception and doublespeak, Thurmond, whose presence in the Senate was the result of a violation of states’ rights, claimed that he was acting in the name of states’ rights. The seventeenth amendment harmed the rights of states to freely choose their own senators; the senators now so chosen could safely ignore the states’ desires.
Had the states truly had their rights, the nature of the Senate would have had a different composition, a different self-conception, and a different set of operating habits. The presence of Thurmond and others like him was a direct result of a violation of states’ rights. Had states’ rights been observed, the opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 would have been weaker. Matt Kibbe continues:
Segregationists like Thurmond had thoroughly corrupted the notion of “states’ rights” and the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution - vital and legitimate check on federal abuses of power - to obfuscate their real agenda. Thurmond and many others used the excuse of federalism to justify the oppression of individuals - unequal treatment under law - but that was never the intention of the federalist system. Yes, the states must not submit to federal tyranny, but that does not give them license to be tyrannical themselves. It was all about the rights of the individual.
The result was mixed: the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed by the Congress, and President Eisenhower signed it into law. But the act had been weakened, and some of the key provisions altered, by the Democrat Party’s filibuster. This was partly remedied when Eisenhower supported the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which was then passed by the Congress. But three years were wasted.
After Thurmond’s filibuster ended, and after Eisenhower signed the bill into law, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus denied the rights of Black students to attend a public high school in Little Rock. In a display of resoluteness, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to escort the African-American students into the high school.
In the wake of Thurmond’s filibuster, the Republican Eisenhower would not let another segregationist member of the Democrat Party, in this case Orval Faubus, stand in the way of equal civil rights. As Matt Kibbe writes,
Free people should judge others based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. If you believe in liberty and the dignity of the individual, you inherently believe in treating everyone equally under the laws of the land. This is a first principle. It’s nonnegotiable. Defending the rights of the individual, including equal treatment under the law, is a fundamental responsibility of a constitutionally limited government, as James Madison had so eloquently argued in Federalist 51.
Thus, in a long and complex narrative, the Seventeenth Amendment was passed by a progressivist movement, headed by a racist president, Woodrow Wilson, who, as head of the Democrat Party, imposed racial segregation into the offices of the federal government which had been racially integrated since the Reconstruction era. That same amendment, and its effect on the culture of the U.S. Senate, would be used half a century later as Strom Thurmond organized his fellow Democrat Party senators to oppose civil rights.