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Idea of the Senate | The Impact of Direct Election on the Senate

George Rothwell Brown, 1922
Seventeenth Amendment

A decade after the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution provided for direct election of senators, it was not clear whether the reform effort had significantly changed the United States Senate. After all, in the first regular post-reform elections held in 1914, every incumbent senator running won reelection. The voters’ preferences obviously had not differed radically from those of the state legislatures, which for years had considered popular sentiment in choosing senators. By the 1920s, however, some changes were becoming evident. A keen observer of the institution was George Rothwell Brown, who had been born and raised on Capitol Hill and spent his career as a Washington correspondent, columnist, and local historian.

Brown was born in Washington in 1879, the son of a local physician. As a boy he started a neighborhood newspaper in the basement of his family’s home on Capitol Hill. He stayed in journalism until his death in 1960, at age 80, while he was covering the Republican National Convention. After graduating from high school, Brown had gotten a job reporting for the old Washington Times. The quality of his writing won him notice from the Washington Post, which hired him in 1902. For many years he wrote a “Post Scripts” political gossip column for that paper. Eventually he came to the attention of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who hired him for the staff of the Washington Herald and made him the chief Washington correspondent for the Hearst papers. In addition to his newspaper reporting, Brown published seven books, including The Leadership of Congress.

Working out of the congressional press galleries, Brown had ready access to the leading senators, both before and after passage of the Seventeenth Amendment. A man of erect and almost austere bearing, he had a ready supply of historical anecdotes that made him a popular speaker and author. He enjoyed a wide circle of acquaintances in Congress, with whom he regularly socialized. He also served as an agent for his politically minded publisher. In 1932 Hearst dispatched Brown to persuade House Speaker John Nance Garner to withdraw as a presidential candidate in favor of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and to accept the vice presidential nomination instead.

As an important contribution to the understanding of the institution, in 1922 George Rothwell Brown surveyed the leadership of Congress and offered these thoughts about the Senate as directly elected by the people. In his book, The Leadership of Congress, Brown says...

The Leadership of Congress

There has never been any historical background for the mythical institution of leadership in the Senate. Brains and ability have always taken its members farther than political power. The Senator held his seat as the ambassador of a sovereign state, and even after the adoption in 1913 of the Seventeenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution, which provided for the election of Senators by the vote of the people, something of the old tradition remained.

This constitutional reform, making the Senator responsible to the people, accentuated his individualism, but it did not create it. . . . The Senator came to think more in terms of himself and his own reelection, nearly always an impelling motive, and less in terms of party; . . .

. . . Leadership in the Senate, in the sense in which it had existed in the House . . . was always foreign to the genius of the Senate. . . .

The truth of the matter was that the Senate was not suffering from a lack of leadership, for it had never been so constituted as to respond to organized party force, but was seeking to conform to the new popular idea of what the Senate should be. It was becoming precisely the kind of a body the people had intended it should become when they had stripped the Senator of his ambassadorial dignity and made him a hustler for votes.

Some Senators yielded frankly to the changed conditions in American political life and became, not the envoys in Congress of sovereign states, but the representatives of the masses. Some continued to maintain a degree of their former unique distinction, clinging to the old conception, and the primaries of 1922 gave to them the cold chills. Others found in the Senate no further appeal to men of independent minds, and . . . voluntarily planned to return to private life. The Senate was in a state of transition as it came more and more under the dominating influence of the plain people of America. . . .

. . . The Senators were not so sure of themselves as they had been formerly; their feet were planted upon a foundation less stable. All felt themselves at the mercy of their constituents. . . .

. . . By the time Mr. Harding entered the White House the Senate was no longer aristocratic, but was thoroughly plebeian, a fact comprehended generally only by the newer Senators, and neither the President nor those seasoned Republican veterans seemed to understand the psychology of this.

. . . .The Senate of the people which had debated and determined the question of the League of Nations had been as brilliant as any Senate in the annals of America. . . . The debates in the Senate in this period will bear comparison with those of the days of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. . . . The inability of the Senate to function more perfectly with the House, and the indications of its own lost sense of direction, were not signs of intellectual poverty. The Senate was simply showing itself to the country, for the first time under normal conditions, in its new character.1

Brown observed the senators’ change from “ambassadors” of their states into independent political operatives. Indeed, the Senate in the 1920s was home to some highly individualistic senators who strongly resisted party discipline. Both the majority Republicans and minority Democrats were divided between progressive and conservative wings, and members of both parties exerted considerable independence from the White House in the era of Warren G. Harding, himself a former senator. Some of the old-time senators had chosen not to become a “hustler for votes” and chose retirement. Brown believed that those who stayed in the Senate merely accentuated their already existing independent streak, but they could no longer depend on the party organizations in their home state legislatures and needed to plan ahead for statewide reelection campaigns and make themselves acceptable to the average voter (which beginning in 1920 included women as well as men). This concern, Brown believed, turned an aristocratic institution plebeian.

The form of election did not lessen the quality of senators. Brown maintained that those who had fiercely debated the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and 1920 matched the quality of those who had debated slavery and expansion in the 1840s and 1850s. He believed that the senators of his day, orators of the quality of William E. Borah, Robert M. La Follette, and Henry Cabot Lodge, equaled in stature Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. The caliber of the senators did not ensure a more efficient or even more democratically responsive Senate. Despite the efforts of the Progressive reform movement, fundamental differences remained between the House and Senate. The larger House set rules that enabled a unified majority to function efficiently. The smaller Senate preserved rules that gave greater voice to the minority, even a minority of one. Unlimited debate continued to make the Senate a harder body to lead. For a veteran observer like George Rothwell Brown, the Seventeenth Amendment’s electoral changes had not altered the fundamental nature of the Senate, but simply made it more visible to the average citizen.

Further Reading:

Brown, George Rothwell. The Leadership of Congress. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill Company, 1922.

Brown, George Rothwell. Washington, A Not Too Serious History. Baltimore: The Norman Publishing Co., 1930.

Ritchie, Donald A. Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

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1. George Rothwell Brown, The Leadership of Congress (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill Company, 1922): 257-58, 260, 272-73, 274, 282.