Repeal the Seventeenth Amendment

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Every once in a blue moon someone in Congress (usually Congressman Ron Paul of Texas) proposes a law or resolution that would actually improve the prospects for human liberty and prosperity. It’s rare, but not nonexistent. One such case is Senate Joint Resolution 35, introduced into the U.S. Senate on April 28, 2004, which was recently brought to my attention by Laurence Vance.

S.J. Res. 35 reads: "Resolved . . . . The seventeenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed." That’s Section 1. Section 2 reads that "The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the legislature thereof, for six years . . ."

This was the original design of the founding fathers; U.S. senators were not directly elected by the voting public until 1914. Thus, S.J. Res. 35 proposes a return to founding principles and is therefore a most revolutionary idea. A good overview of the history of the Seventeenth Amendment is Ralph A. Rossum’s book, Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the Seventeenth Amendment. Rossum correctly points out that the system of federalism or "divided sovereignty" that the founding fathers created with the Constitution was never intended to be enforced by the Supreme Court alone. Congress, the president, and most importantly, the citizens of the states, were also to have an equal say on constitutional matters.

The citizens of the states were to be represented by their state legislatures. As Roger Sherman wrote in a letter to John Adams: "The senators, being . . . dependent on [state legislatures] for reelection, will be vigilant in supporting their rights against infringement by the legislative or executive of the United States."

Rossum also quotes Hamilton as saying that the election of senators by state legislatures would be an "absolute safeguard" against federal tyranny. George Mason believed that the appointment of senators by state legislatures would give the citizens of the states "some means of defending themselves against encroachments of the National Government."

Fisher Ames thought of U.S. senators as "ambassadors of the states," whereas Madison, in Federalist #62, wrote that "The appointment of senators by state legislatures gives to state governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government, as must secure the authority of the former." Moreover, said Madison, the mere "enumeration of [federal] powers" in the Constitution would never be sufficient to restrain the tyrannical proclivities of the central state, and were mere "parchment barriers" to tyranny. Structural arrangements, such as the appointment of senators by state legislatures, were necessary.

State legislatures did not hesitate to instruct U.S. senators on how to vote. In fact, the very first instruction that was given to them was to meet in public! The Virginia and Kentucky Resolves of 1798 (see William Watkins, Reclaiming the American Revolution) were the work of state legislatures that instructed their senators to oppose the Sedition Act, which essentially made it illegal to criticize the federal government.

State legislatures were instrumental in Andrew Jackson’s famous battle with the Bank of the United States (BUS), which ended with the Bank being de-funded and replaced by the Independent Treasury System and the era of "free banking" (1842—1862). State legislatures throughout the U.S. instructed their senators to oppose the BUS in the senate. Senator Pelog Sprague of Maine was forced to resign in 1835 after ignoring his legislature’s instructions to vote against the Bank. The U.S. Senate voted to censure President Andrew Jackson for opposing the BUS, but the states responded by forcing seven other senators to resign for taking part in that vote. (It seems that it’s not only twenty-first century Republicans who run for office by calling Washington, D.C. a cesspool, and then thinking of it as more like a hot tub once they get there).

The founding fathers understood that it would never be in the Supreme Court’s self-interest to protect states’ rights. Rossum quotes the anti-federalist writer "Brutus" on this point:

It would never be in the self-interest of the Court to strike down federal laws trenching on the inviolable and residuary sovereignty of the states, because every extension of power of the general legislature, as well as of the judicial powers, will increase the powers of the courts.

“Brutus’ also pointed out that with increased powers of the courts would likely come increased compensation for federal judges.

The adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 (along with the income tax and the Fed) was a result of the deification of "democracy" that began with the Union victory in the War to Prevent Southern Independence. The war was fought, said Lincoln at Gettysburg, so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people" should not perish from the earth. This of course was absurd nonsense, but Lincoln’s silver-tongued rhetoric was apparently persuasive enough to those residing north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The direct election of senators was said to be more democratic, and therefore would reduce, if not end, corruption. There was a good bit of corruption involved in the election of senators, but the source of the corruption was: democracy!

As Rossum recounts, in 1866 a new federal law was passed that mandated for the first time how the states were to appoint senators. First, a voice vote would be taken in each house. If there was no overwhelming choice, then a concurrent vote would be taken. This process revealed information about voting preferences to minority cliques within the legislatures, who then knew who they had to support or oppose. The end result was frequent gridlocks (71 from 1885 to 1912 alone). The deadlocks were inevitably ended by bribery. Thus "democracy, in the form of the 1866 law, led to the bribery, so that the natural "cure" for the problem was: More democracy!

The Seventeenth Amendment was one of the last nails to be pounded into the coffin of federalism in America. The citizens of the states, through their state legislators, could no longer place any roadblocks whatsoever in the way of federal power. The Sixteenth Amendment, which enacted the income tax in the same year, implicitly assumed that the federal government lays claim to all income, and that citizens would be allowed to keep whatever their rulers in Washington, D.C. decided they could keep by setting the tax rates. From that point on, the states were only mere appendages or franchises of the central government.

The federal government finally became a pure monopoly and citizen sovereignty became a dead letter. Further arming itself with the powers of legal counterfeiting (the Fed) in the same year, the federal government could ignore the wishes of great majority of the citizens with reckless and disastrous abandon, as it did with its entry into World War I just a few years later.

If Americans ever again become interested in living in a free society, one of their first orders of business should be the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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