The 17th Amendment Observes Its Centennial

When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas traveled around Illinois in 1858 debating each other while vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate, they weren’t looking for votes from the masses.

They were seeking votes in the Illinois legislature. Douglas was the incumbent senator, and Lincoln, who had served one term in the House in the 1840s, was a railroad attorney.

In the 1850s, U.S. senators were selected by the state legislatures as directed by Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution, which says: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one vote.”

Lincoln Douglas debate marker
Historical marker commemorating one of the Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debates, 06/03/1938

According to the Senate Historical Office, the framers thought that having senators elected by the legislatures would aid senators because they would be less subject to pressure and have more time to do business. And, they felt, direct election would strengthen ties between the national and state governments.

But opposition to this arrangement began long before the Lincoln–Douglas debates. Political problems in states resulted in many seats going empty for long periods. Support grew slowly for popular, or direct, election of senators by voters.

Strong resistance in the Senate to a proposed Constitutional amendment calling for direct elections meant the idea got nowhere for many years.

Finally, in 1911, the Senate approved a proposed Amendment allowing direct election, and the House followed suit the next year. It won approval by the required three-fourths of the state legislatures by April 8, 1913, and was declared part of the Constitution, the 17th Amendment, on May 31 by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.

17th Amendment
Joint Resolution Proposing the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 05/13/1912

States still had two senators, elected for six year terms and with one vote each. When there is a vacancy, the governor of the state shall call for a special election to fill the remainder of the term and, if empowered by the legislature, appoint someone to serve as senator until one is elected by the voters.

Seats in the U.S. House, however, remain vacant until a new representative is chosen in a special election. The Constitution does not provide for appointments to vacant House seats.

In that 1858 Senate race, Douglas kept his seat, and Lincoln found another office to seek.

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