What Is the 17th Amendment? - Definition, Summary & History

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  • 0:01 Defining the 17th Amendment
  • 1:30 History & Debate over…
  • 3:07 Recent Controversy
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

The 17th Amendment redefined the rules about how senators are elected. This debated amendment came after the Senate was accused of vast corruption. Read about the amendment's history and how it is still controversial today.

Defining the 17th Amendment

Think of your ideal United States senator to represent you and your state. Most probably, he or she is an outstanding member of the community, dedicated as a public servant and wise beyond his or her years. Whatever image comes to mind, one thing that your ideal senator probably never did was buy his or her way into office. But prior to the 17th Amendment, the Senate was infamously known as 'the millionaires' club.' This was because the path to get into the Senate was through the state legislatures. And since state legislatures, like other political institutions, were notoriously corrupt at the time, the path to the Senate quickly became who could buy their way in.

The 17th Amendment of the Constitution tried to solve this problem. Prior to the 17th Amendment, the Constitution specified that senators were elected by state legislatures. The reason why the framers of the Constitution originally did this was because they wanted state governments to have some kind of role in the national government. But widespread corruption made people lose faith in the system. Furthermore, sometimes state legislatures just couldn't decide who should be senator. Consequently, the Constitution was changed with the 17th Amendment so that 'the Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years...' This meant that senators would now be freely elected.

History and Debate over the 17th Amendment

The 17th Amendment came about during the Progressive Era. During this time in American history, reformers were pushing to clean up health standards, improve moral standards, elevate American education and fight corruption in state and local governments. The push for popular election of Senators became part of that campaign.

Leading the way for this reform was the populist William Jennings Bryan. Bryan, who would later become Secretary of State, served as a representative of the House of Representatives. Bryan also ran for president, although he lost to William McKinley. Bryan was highly critical of the Senate's perceived corruption and ineffectiveness. Consequently, he actively campaigned for the passing of the 17th Amendment.

In addition to Williams Jennings Bryan, the yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst published in Cosmopolitan magazine a series of articles criticizing the way in which the Senate conducted business. This helped gain popular support for the new constitutional amendment.

Getting the amendment passed, however, was a hard thing because the Constitution required that two-thirds of each house vote for the bill. Would senators logically want to change the very process by which they became a senator? Several senators, most notably George Hoar, objected to this change, resulting in its failure to pass several times. Ultimately, however, it was the state legislators who voluntarily gave up their power to elect senators, which allowed the movement to gain passage. The amendment finally gained enough votes and was ratified in 1913.

Recent Controversy

What happens when a senator dies or needs to leave office? The 17th Amendment allows governors of each state to fill vacant Senate seats temporarily until a special election occurs. But this has opened up the door for all kinds of controversies.

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