Direct Elections

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 22, 1910

The resolution now before the Judiciary Committee of the Senate, favoring the election of United States Senators by direct vote, is the first resolution of the sort to show any signs of gaining acceptance in the upper house, but the plan it embodies is by no means a new thing under the sun.

Fight Began Back In 1826

In the Constitutional Convention of 1787 there were men who opposed the election of senators by the state legislatures, and so long ago as 1826 a resolution almost identical with that at present under discussion was introduced in the House of Representatives. It provided for an amendment to the Constitution taking the privilege of electing senators away from the legislators and giving it to those voters in each state who were qualified to vote for “members of the more numerous branch of the state legislature.” This resolution went to the table and was heard of no more, but three years later another one was introduced, and in the new one the so-called option scheme, which made so much noise when Mr. Bryan revived it in the early nineties, was set forth for the first time. By this scheme the privilege was taken from the legislatures, but each legislature was empowered to decide how the senators from its state should be chosen—that is to say, whether by universal manhood suffrage or by some form of restricted suffrage.

Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution provides that “the Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof for six years.” Since the late eighties, when the agitation for the direct election of senators, after long smoldering, began to break into flame, various plans for getting around this direct mandate have been proposed and tried. All of them involve a pledging of the legislators. Such plans, in general, have worked fairly well, but an important defect in all of them is that a pledge, after all, is only a pledge, and that the temptation to violate it is always apt to overcome a number of legislators. Therefore, a movement of legislators. Therefore, a movement looking toward the actual modification of the Constitution has grown up, and it seems to be gathering strength daily.

Amending The Constitution

To effect such a change, the text of the proposed amendment must be approved by a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, and after it has been so approved it must be ratified by the Legislatures of three-fourths of the states or by constitutional conventions in three fourths of the states before it becomes incorporated in the Constitution. There is, true enough, the alternate plan of a national constitutional convention, but it is so clumsy that few advocate it. Before such a convention may be held it must be suggested by the legislatures of two-thirds of the states, and after that its decisions must be ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of thesStates, or by constitutional conventions in three-fourths of the states.

The first resolution looking to the amendment of Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution was offered in the House of Representatives by Mr. Storrs, of New York, on February 14 1826. It apparently aroused little interest and Mr. Storrs himself seems to have lost enthusiasm for it, for a few days later he requested that it be laid on the table, and there it died the death. Just three years later, on February 19, 1829, Mr. Wright, of Ohio, introduced a resolution proposing a number of amendments, one of which provided for the election of senators by direct vote and changed their term of office from six years to four. It never came to a vote. Six years later the Storrs resolution was revived, but again it was tabled.

 Johnson Favored It

Then there was a halt of 15 years, during which nothing was heard of the proposed reform. In 1850 it was revived, and during the five years following no less than five separate resolutions appeared in the House. Two of them were fathered by Andrew Johnson, afterward president, who was an ardent advocate of the direct election, not only of senators, but also of the president and vice-president. When Johnson went from the House to the Senate he kept up his interest in the matter, and when he became president he bombarded Congress with arguments and appeals. But the lawmakers, during the sixties, were busy with more important things, and so nothing came of Johnson’ efforts.

During the seventies a flood of direct elections resolutions descended upon the lower House. According to Dr. George H. Haynes, the historian of the movement, six were offered in the Forty-ninth Congress, six in the Fiftieth and no less than nine in the Fifty-first. Before long the Senate also took a hand, with Senators Palmer, of Illinois, Turpie, of Indiana, and Mitchell, of Oregon, leading the battle for the proposed change. But nothing was done: it was always impossible to get the necessary two-thirds majority. Not until 1893 was any real progress made. Then the House of Representatives, on January 16, passed the Tucker resolution which was almost identical with that now before the Senate.

But the Senate pigeon-holed the resolution, and it did the same thing to the resolution of July 21, 1894, which passed the House by a vote of 141 to 51, and that of May 11, 1898, which passed by 185 to 11, and that of April 13, 1900, which passed by 240 to 15 (note the steady rise of the majorities), and that of February 13, 1902, which passed practically unanimously. The proposed amendment failed even of a favorable committee report in the Senate until June 5, 1896. Then a joint resolution, similar to the Tucker resolution, was favorably reported by the Committee on Privileges and Elections, and the committee strongly urged its adoption. But it went to the table and there gave up the ghost.

 Mr. Bristow Is Its Sponsor

The resolution now before the Judiciary Committee owes its prosperity to Senator Bristow, of Kansas. He introduced it in the Senate and he has been battling for it ever since. Just before the adjournment of the last session he complained of the neglect into which it had fallen, and when he returned to Washington a month ago he gave notice that unless the committee took prompt action upon the resolution he would move that it be discharged from further considering it. The threat had the effect intended, and now it seems likely that the committee will adopt the favorable report of the sub-committee, and that the resolution will actually come before the Senate. There are even optimists who predict that it will get the necessary two-thirds vote, and so go to the House, where it is pretty certain to be passed.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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