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The Impact of Electing Senators by Popular Vote

Idea of the Senate

Political Scientist George Haynes, 1938

Cartoon portraying the time it took to pass the Seventeenth Amendment allowing the direct election of U.S. senators

     The 1938 publication of George Haynes’ two-volume The Senate of the United States: Its History and Practice instantly made Haynes the nation’s leading academic authority on that institution. Reviewers routinely ranked Haynes’ work with Charles Warren’s monumental three-volume The Supreme Court in United States History, published 15 years earlier. While others had produced major studies examining individual areas of Senate activity, and while Lindsay Rogers had created an extended essay on the institution in defense of unlimited debate, Haynes was the first to attempt a comprehensive history.

     Born in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, in 1866, George Haynes graduated from Amherst College in 1887 and took a teaching post in modern languages and mathematics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After three years of teaching, he traveled south to Baltimore to begin doctoral studies in political science under Herbert Baxter Adams at The Johns Hopkins University. (In this, he followed Woodrow Wilson by seven years and preceded Lindsay Rogers by 22.) Receiving his Ph.D. in 1893, Haynes returned to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he taught economics and government for 44 years, until his retirement in 1937.

     Haynes followed a circuitous road from graduate training to his landmark study of the U.S. Senate. In 1894 his Hopkins mentor, Herbert Baxter Adams, who was also Woodrow Wilson’s guide in producing Congressional Government, acknowledged the young scholar’s promise by publishing his doctoral dissertation, “Representation and Suffrage in Massachusetts, 1620-1691” in his Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science. Haynes then shifted his interest in the Massachusetts legislature forward two centuries.

     By 1900 Haynes had broadened his focus from Massachusetts to state legislatures in general. His study “Representation in State Legislatures” caused him to examine the role of those bodies in electing U.S. senators. He recognized that the increasing number of deadlocks over hotly contested Senate vacancies kept the legislatures from addressing matters of more immediate concern to their constituencies. Consequently, his interest in divesting state legislatures of this constitutional burden grew from his desire to reform those institutions rather than from “optimistic assurance that the personnel or efficiency of the Senate would be notably improved by popular election.”

     The Worcester professor’s Election of Senators appeared in 1906, just as novelist David Graham Phillips was serving up his sensationalized “Treason of the Senate” series in William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine. While both accounts focused on opportunities for corruption under the indirect election system, Haynes’ more sober study began with the view that public opinion, in practice, strongly influenced selection of the Senate’s membership. At that time at least one-third of the states allowed their voters, by various methods developed over the previous decade, to indicate support for likely Senate candidates in advance of formal state legislative balloting. As Haynes later described the evolving process, “The people pressed the button; the members of the State Legislature did the rest.”

     With the Seventeenth Amendment’s ratification in 1913, Haynes reiterated his belief that the Senate “is not to be ‘reformed’—so far as reform is necessary—by a mere change in the mode of election,” but he hoped “that it will be less easy for certain types of men, who have brought reproach upon the Senate,” to be elected. He cautioned—as did Lindsay Rogers—that popular election could accelerate an already evident and disturbing trend away from the type of senator suited to a “deliberate—perhaps too deliberate—study of what is wise to do” to those who were younger and less experienced, but who displayed a vote-winning “aptitude for getting things done. . . . [F]or the future, it is going to be harder for a Senator of manly independence to hold a course which does not square with the opinion of the day; for his chance of re-election will be largely determined not by whether his acts have been wise, but by whether they have been popular.”

     Over the three decades that followed publication of his 1906 Election of Senators, Haynes broadened his knowledge of Senate procedures and processes. His Senate of the United States appeared in 1938, on the eve of the Senate’s 150th anniversary. A combination of that coincidental anniversary and the author’s unbridled determination to see a 30-year project through to completion eventually overcame difficulties in finding a publisher for so large a work. He explained his volumes’ size and publishers’ reluctance by noting that, unlike the other branches, the Senate lacked “a certain unity of scope.” The “Senate’s tremendous powers,” he continued, “are not merely legislative, but executive, judicial, and investigative as well. To organize such diverse material in a co-ordinated survey cannot fail to be a task forbidding in prospect and difficult in process.”1

     Following Lindsay Rogers’ model, he devoted his first two chapters to the Senate’s founding period; then he switched to a topical format, with the next 18 chapters addressing such subjects as the Senate’s specific constitutional powers, its rules and officers, its committees and major investigations, its elections and its leadership, and its relations with the House of Representatives and the president. A final chapter summarized his views on the ever-changing Senate. His thorough documentation and detailed index made the volumes a handy and satisfying reference work for several generations of scholars, journalists, and general readers.

The Senate of the United States: Its History and Practice

     The Constitution of the United States came from the Federal Convention as an instrument of compromise. Its ratification, in the words of John Adams, was “extorted from a reluctant people by grinding necessity.” The delegates’ individual ideals and theories had had to give way; for at times the task of reaching agreement upon a draft Constitution that could stand some chance of being accepted by nine states seemed hopeless. Once ratified, it became the typical example of a “rigid” constitution.

     In almost every phrase relating to the Senate there is reflected the delegates’ anxious compromising. The result was a legislative body unique in its basis of representation, in relation to the Executive and to the other branch of Congress, in its procedure, and in its weighty non-legislative powers. It was designed to be a small body, associated with the President somewhat as an executive council, acting as judge in the trial of all impeachments, serving as a check upon “the changeableness, precipitation, and excesses of the first branch,” especially as the guardian of the small states against aggression on the part of the large states, and as the protector of all the states against encroachment by the new “centralized power.” And it was to be the people’s defender against the “turbulency of democracy.”

     For more than a century not a word of the Constitution relating to the Senate was altered. Nevertheless, long before the end of that period the Senate had outstripped the House in power and prestige, had become the only “Upper Chamber” dominant in a national legislature if not the most powerful single legislative body in the world. In spite of the Constitution’s alleged “rigidity,” the Senate has constantly been in process of change. And the end is not yet. . . .

     Men who for years have been close observers of Congress agree that the majority of present-day [1930s] Senators are men of “moral seriousness” . . . and that in matters of personal conduct senatorial standards are on a higher plane than a generation ago. Scores of Senators, ambitious to render effective service, live laborious days, engrossed in tasks that of late years have become enormously more complicated, and that must be performed amid incessant distractions and under pressures from highly organized minority groups such as were practically unknown before the turn of the century.

     By the direct primary and popular election of Senators it was sought to make our choice of Senators more democratic. In some respects substantial progress has been made toward that goal. But if our newer processes both of nomination and election and also of lawmaking have become more democratic, there is abundant evidence that they have made the winning of a seat in the Senate easier for the demagogue, and have subjected its members to more demagogic demands from within and from without. While the Seventeenth Amendment was under debate, its opponents predicted that its adoption would make the Senate a mere duplicate of the House. After twenty-five years of experience with the results of popular election the question is raised, whether what was formerly the sober and dignified branch of Congress is not “becoming the more flighty and irresponsible”—whether today it is not the Senate that “takes more kindly to rash and hasty legislation than does the House.” 2

     Florida senator Claude Pepper prepared one of the first reviews of Haynes’ two-volume work to appear in a scholarly journal. Writing in the Harvard Law Review of April 1939, the newly elected Florida legislator offered his initial impressions of the Senate, as enlightened by Haynes’ scholarship. The review offers a concise expression of the “idea of the Senate.”

The varied and extraordinary functions and powers of the Senate make it, according to one's point of view, a hydra-headed monster or the citadel of constitutional and democratic liberties. Like democracy itself, the Senate is inefficient, unwieldy, inconsistent; it has its foibles, its vanities, its members who are great, the near great, and those who think they are great. But like democracy also, it is strong, it is sound at the core, it has survived many changes, it has saved the country many catastrophes, it is a safeguard against any form of tyranny, good or bad, which consciously or unconsciously might tend to remove the course of government from persistent public scrutiny. In the last analysis, it is probably the price we in America have to pay for liberty. 3

Further Reading:

, October 31, 1947

, 38:273-74.

Baker, Richard A. “Twentieth Century Senate Reform: Three Views from the Outside.” In , by Colton C. Campbell and Nicol C. Rae. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Haynes, George H. . New York: Henry Holt, 1906.

1. Ibid., 1:vii.

2. George H. Haynes, The Senate of the United States: Its History and Practice (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1938), 2:1037, 1084.

3. Claude Pepper, review of The Senate of the United States: Its History and Practice, by George H. Haynes. Harvard Law Review 52 (April 1939): 1026.