Civil and Human Rights

Celebrating the 17th Amendment and the Constitution’s Progressive Arc

Nearly a century ago today, the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was officially added to our Nation’s Charter after Connecticut became the 36th state to ratify it on April 8, 1913. This Amendment expanded democracy and the right to vote by providing that the people of each state would elect their own U.S. Senators. Previously, U.S. Senators were chosen by State Legislatures, as the original Framers had specified in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution.

As CAC’s David Gans explained in a post on Text & History, the 17th Amendment was necessary not only to enhance Americans’ right to vote, but also to help eliminate the widespread corruption resulting from the original selection process:

Election of Senators by state legislatures was a disaster. Far from being “good politics” or “good constitutional design,” the system led to rampant and blatant corruption, letting corporations and other moneyed interests effectively buy U.S. Senators, and tied state legislatures up in numerous, lengthy deadlocks over whom to send to Washington, leaving those bodies with far less time to devote to the job of enacting the laws their states needed for the welfare of the people. These ills made the case for bringing the election of Senators in line with the Constitution’s fundamental values of protecting democracy and securing the right to vote to all Americans a very strong one. Once the Senate relented and approved the Seventeenth Amendment, the States ratified the Amendment in less than eleven months.

But what should be a cause for celebration in America — rooting out corruption and expanding the fundamental rights of “We the People” that are central to our values — has actually served as another vehicle to deepen the schism between conservatives and progressives in this country. In the past year, Tea Party Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) has called the 17th Amendment a “mistake,” and conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — a Tea Party favorite — has agreed, calling the Amendment a mistaken “burst of progressivism” to which “you can trace the decline of so-called states’ rights throughout the rest of the 20th century.”  Indeed, while many in the Tea Party want this Amendment repealed and desire to return to the original system of electing Senators — a system fraught with corruption — progressives are proud of the story this Amendment tells about the Constitution and the American people.

Including the 17th Amendment, Americans have amended the Constitution six times in order to expand and protect the right to vote and make our government more democratic. Today, the anniversary of the ratification of that Amendment, is a perfect day to celebrate not only how this Amendment has changed our elections process for the better, but also the progressive arc of our Constitution’s history. Instead of calling for the repeal of Amendments that have bettered America, as Tea Partiers have, we should commit ourselves to honoring the whole Constitution, and be proud of the Amendments that, over the past 220 years, have made our country the “more perfect Union” it is today.


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