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By the People
We rank our next amendment that tired to correct a fundamental flaw.
Do you know where the term by the people comes from?
It’s not in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. You guess it – It’s words President Abraham Lincoln spoke on November 19, 1863, famously known as the Gettysburg Address. It’s one of the top 100 speeches in that book I keep mentioning that you should get and put on your coffee table.
Lincoln’s words asked whether our democracy could survive a bloody Civil War that continued hundreds of miles to the South.
His words went straight to the point – those who fought that day, “these dead shall not have died in vain – this this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The question is simple. The United States is a group of people who self-govern, and can we continue? We govern ourselves by voting, and as we have explored in the past few months, it’s been important as to who we allow to vote and remove barriers that prevent those who are allowed to vote.
It’s a government by the people.
Forgive me for correcting one of the greatest speeches ever; Lincoln omitted that we are actually a federal constitutional republic. A republic, by definition, is a state of power held by the people and their elected representatives.
And yet, we have, or we had, systems of government that created intermediaries to serve as voters.
Take the Electoral College. Each state has a certain number of votes, and the presidential nominee who wins those votes wins the White House. Each state can determine how those votes are split. We have seen four guys win the presidential election without winning the majority vote, and all four were disasters. Fortunately, only one has been reelected. The EC dilutes our direct vote.
We also had a system where states had equal representation in Congress. People got to elect the number of House of Representatives depending on their electoral votes, minus two. In contrast, the state legislatures got to elect the two senators to the other chamber, the Senate. The people’s vote is diluted here as well.
This brings us to the Seventeenth Amendment, which seeks to reverse the state’s power in the federal government, and there are important reasons. So here we are.
I’m sorry to interrupt. This is a chance to suggest that if you are not a subscriber, go ahead and subscribe to Okay History, a reader-supported newsletter. Thanks!
Let’s dive in. For the people.
13: Amendment XVII
Its purpose: Establishes the direct election of United States senators in each state.
Year proposed: 1912
Year Ratified: 1913
If you want a government by the people, remove as many barriers as possible. We all know that stupid people can vote. But stupid people tend not to be corrupt or, to put it better – large amounts of stupid people are incorruptible.
This is probably the only amendment to the Constitution where the states pushed it forward. The system was so bad, which I will get to in a minute, that it had to be corrected, and there was zero chance the people put into power by the states would voluntarily give it up.
We are fortunate to elect senators directly, even if they generally hate us. Because our vote is no longer diluted.
If you think the House of Representatives was bad – where elected officials shoot each other – you can imagine what state general assemblies were like when they held the power to decide who would have long tenures in Washington, DC.
There was corruption everywhere. In 1906, Cosmopolitan magazine published a series of investigations that exposed the Senate as a “Rich Man’s Club.” Yes, Cosmo was an investigative publication back in the day.
We see our guy, Nelson Aldrich, mentioned as a prime example of the “intimate of Wall Street’s great robber barons.” As we saw with the Sixteenth Amendment, Alrich wasn’t hip to the idea that he could get thrown out of office by the people.
Guys who wanted seats could bribe people to get them. One dude successfully paid out $2 million to secure a seat. Lawmakers in Montana were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to seat rich men’s preferred picks. The rich were flaunting their power.
But state legislatures could also be so divided that they sometimes wouldn’t seat anyone in the Senate. It began with the 1st Congress, where New York failed to send anyone. Between 1891 and 1905, at least 50 deadlocked elections took place nationwide.
Delaware even left one seat open for four years because they couldn’t agree on someone.
This deprived the states of representation, and something had to change.
Despite the passage, it is easy to argue that the Senate is just as corrupt today. I can’t think of a more disconnected governing body than the United States Senate, where people can hold onto office for decades.
The Republican Party of the late 19th century and early 20th were champions of suffrage expansion and general voting rights. But the direct election of senators broke their collective minds. By 1911, ten Republicans who opposed the amendment were defeated—the ones who remained argued that state legislatures were smarter than ordinary people when electing senators. Even if a few lawmakers on the state side were easily corruptible, it was the people's fault in electing them.
It's like, what the ever living heck is this argument?
Republicans even went so far as to join the movement that added a race rider to the amendment. This provision would strip Congress of its power to regulate state elections, making the Sixteenth Amendment worthless. It would allow former Confederate states to disenfranchise Black men from voting.
A Republican Senator from Idaho called it “unwise” for Congress to protect Black American’s voting rights.
Who proposed it?
The 62nd Congress. The Populist wave that we saw successfully pass the Sixteenth Amendment continued with the direct election of senators. Still, the Senate did its best Mitch McConnell impression on four different occasions and tabled the vote after the House passed their versions.
The states then took it upon themselves and launched the first organization campaign to obtain the amendment. By 1911, thirty-one states had signed on, and the pressure was too much to continue to fight.
Why did I rank it here?
If you ever come across someone who suggests that the Seventeenth Amendment is an overreach of the federal government and elections of senators need to be returned to the states – say you are arguing with Ted Cruz – kindly remind them that the states themselves fought to get this passed.
The Seventeenth Amendment didn’t end the corruption or the Rich Man’s Club mantra. As I mentioned over a year ago, when ranking the states during the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, let’s go ahead and abolish the Senate because what purpose does it really serve other than rich men’s pockets?
I used to be an anti-Seventeenth Amendment guy due to the ideas listed, but a few years ago, I flipped, and doing this process opened my eyes to how bad the original set-up was.
So, the Seventeenth Amendment sits outside the top 10.
Okay, let me know what you think of my ranking.
By now, you have heard the song “Rich Men North of Richmond.” My college roommate sent it to me the moment it went live, and everyone has been talking about it since.
I won’t post the video other than to say it is okay. There are parts of the song about people on welfare that I didn’t care for, and generally, when I hear a white guy moaning about his life, I have to roll my eyes a bit. But the point of our representatives being so disconnected is more than fair.
Someone needs to write a song called “You get the government you deserve” and see the reaction.
What do you think of the Seventeenth Amendment? Good, bad, okay? Any ideas on how we can reassert our control over the people we send to represent us rather than the rich?
I have a quick update on Blue. He has been feeling better since last week’s emergency room visit. If you haven’t been to the vet lately, be prepared to be sold on various procedures and medications that seem a bit much.
We were concerned about the possibility of bloat – something that is common in labs. It’s my understanding that bloat occurs when the intestines get all tangled, usually after intense physical activity immediately after eating.
Once we ruled out bloat, our boy got an X-ray and sonogram, which revealed nothing unusual. He also had some blood work and an IV, which immediately made him feel better.
But the thing that bugged me was the suggestion the vet made to keep Blue overnight. He is an anxious dog, one who didn’t like the car ride over and especially being in a place where people he doesn’t know are holding him down, flipping him over, shaving off his hair, removing blood from his body, then replacing it with other stuff. It’s tough to watch your dog see you through the door window and wonder why he is going through all this.
After the initial worry was resolved, what would be the point of keeping him there? It sounded like an upsell. I’m not leaving my dog overnight and spending an extra few grand to do so, just in case. As I told the vet, we'll return if Blue starts throwing up again.
Anyway, vets seem to be the new dentists. I had one dentist who told me my teeth would fall out by 40, so I spent thousands of dollars on all kinds of stuff. Miraculously, at 47, I still have everything.
When I went to a new dentist years later, she discovered I had two wisdom teeth I never knew about. When I asked if I needed to have them removed, she responded, “Not if they don’t hurt.”
So find a vet who won’t pull out your wisdom teeth just because they exist.
Just some unsolicited advice this Friday morning. You are welcome.
Okay, I’m back on Monday with another Maundy Monday Newsletter. Have a great weekend. It looks like it will begin to cool down in DC, which I am grateful for.