There’s been a lot of yammering in the Senate chambers about the
Constitution, as if anyone there takes its original structure seriously.
fact, the Senate itself is no longer what the framers intended. If it
were, most of these birds wouldn’t even be in office.
The Senate was once an appointed body whose purpose was to guard the
interests of the states against the central government. Thanks to the
horrible 17th Amendment, it became a national body caught up in the
election rackets and in thrall to special-interest groups.
The process by which this dramatic transformation took place is one
least-known aspects of constitutional history. But the effects were
devastating for the cause of human liberty. In the federal form of
government, the people as citizens of their respective states controlled
Washington. Today, the people in their states have no effective means to
restrain the federal government that controls them.
The original structure was laid out in Article 1. “The Senate of the
United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen
by the Legislature thereof.” The idea of an appointed Senate was
people to whom they were responsible were the elected representatives
closest to the people. State legislatures consisted of friends and
neighbors, and they appointed respected and landed members of the
community they represented, who in turn fought against taxes and other
A vote cast in the states had direct impact on affairs in Washington.
U.S. Senate’s primary attention was directed, not toward Washington or a
national constituency or the next election, but toward the states as
independent juridical units. The senators’ concern was protecting the
rights of these units, and guarding the liberties of the citizens of the
against encroachments by a rapacious executive and judiciary.
Through the Senate, the states wielded massive control over the
government. The Senate has always been the “aristocratic” body of
Congress, but in a real if indirect sense, it was once the body closest
to average people. Senators did not have campaign war chests to fill and
spend. They didn’t worry about paying back election bribes because there
were no mass elections.
The disaster occurred in 1913, at the height of the progressive era
the great god of American politics became not liberty but democracy. Law
and legislation in the 19th century was too fixed, the progressives
What was needed was a much more expansive government that directly
reflected the day-by-day democratic passions of the public — precisely
what Tocqueville warned against.
For the advocates of big government, the model was the House of
Representatives. Before Lincoln’s war, it had distinguished itself as a
hotbed of centralist sentiment. It advocated and obtained war against
South. After the war, the House imposed a military dictatorship on the
Southern states, and impeached a president who was trying to stop the
tyranny. For good reason, the statists dreamed of making the Senate a
carbon copy of the House.
Woodrow Wilson, consistent with the times, had also come to believe
it was God’s plan that all governments should be directly elected by the
people. Monarchy was out; in fact it had to be destroyed wherever it
existed. Even the traditional American republic was insufficiently
democratic in the Rousseauian sense. The Senate as an appointed body was
a standing rebuke to this maniacal vision.
Nearly overnight, the character of the U.S. system of government
We got the income tax, which made all income vulnerable to confiscation
invited the government to pry into our private lives. We got the Federal
Reserve, which in time would destroy the gold standard, the best check
government power ever known. In addition, we got U.S. entry into a
European conflict that was none of our business, and a vast step-up in
statism at home (the usual result of war).
With the 17th Amendment, we suffered a fundamental and permanent
attack on the original character of the Senate itself. The new amendment
read: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators
from each State, elected by the people thereof.” It seemed to be a small
change, but its effects would alter the entire federal arrangement
constructed by the framers.
Suddenly, state legislatures were disempowered from the affairs of
central government. They were reduced in stature from powerful bodies
played an essential watchdog role into mere lobbyists dependent on
from the Congress and the executive. The U.S. Senate did indeed become
like the House: grasping, conniving, and slavish in its attachments to
Today, as the Senate examines the question of whether Clinton should
removed from office, its members are not thinking about what is best for
the liberty of the citizens of the states. They are loathe to apply the
independent of establishment opinion. And what they fear is not the
consternation of their state legislators, but the next election and
national standing. It should not surprise anyone when they play the
in the face of media and executive branch pressure.
In light of this history, it is preposterous for the Senate to be
on about the Federalist Papers and the framers’ intentions with regard
the impeachment power. It is not even the body it was established to be.
Hence it cannot and will not exercise the power over the executive state
that it was supposed to wield by its very structure.
Terrible amendments to the Constitution were added early this
history has shown that they need not do permanent damage. The 18th
amendment imposed prohibition in 1919, but in a great triumph for
freedom, it was repealed with the 21st Amendment in 1933. As the Senate
caves to the usual pressure groups and lets Clinton off the hook,
citizens should retaliate by reversing the 17th Amendment, too.