Direct election of United States senators and the transformation of American politics

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Margaret S. Thompson


Direct election, Senators, Seventeenth Amendment

Subject Categories

American Politics | Political History


In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, establishing that the American people, rather than the state legislatures, would elect members of the U.S. Senate. The amendment came about as a result of decades of debate in Congress and the press, and represented the first time in which a major structural element of the original Constitution was significantly and permanently changed. Nevertheless, it is an issue which has received little scholarly attention to date.

This dissertation argues that direct election of senators came about as a result of gradual but significant changes in the way Americans understood the proper workings of their government at both the state and national levels. Whereas the state legislatures had originally been empowered to elect senators because they were viewed as trustworthy guardians of the people's liberties and were ideally positioned to select the best and most experienced candidates for this important national office, by the late nineteenth century this view had changed drastically. While the Founders of the Constitution had thought it necessary to provide the state governments with a voice in the national government through the election of senators, by the late nineteenth century it was increasingly seen as desirable to isolate the supposedly corrupt and incompetent state legislatures from national affairs.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Progressive reformers, disenchanted with the corruption plaguing representative institutions, capitalized on these trends to build support for a movement toward direct democracy, and popular election of senators played an important role in this effort. While supporters of direct election argued that it would enhance American democracy and make the government more responsive to the will of the people, they increasingly operated under the assumption that this new, more open democratic system would only be accessible to those segments of the population they deemed desirable. Immigrants, African Americans and the uneducated were increasingly being marginalized by procedural reforms adopted by Progressives ostensibly to expand democracy and combat corruption, and it was in this atmosphere of suffrage restriction that direct election gained sufficient support to secure passage of an amendment.


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