Come November, voters will choose a third of the U.S. senators -- but, as the campaign season starts, there’s a push to repeal an amendment that will shape each election.
It’s a story of the 17th Amendment, ratified 105 years ago this April. Instead of having state legislatures choose senators, the amendment gave that power directly to the voters.
It’s also a story of how the change hinged largely on the biblically inspired efforts of a former Lincoln congressman who is largely misunderstood: William Jennings Bryan.
Bryan embraced the measure in his first campaign for Congress in 1890, and twice voted for it while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. As three-time Democratic nominee for president (1896, 1900, 1908), he insisted on its prominent inclusion in the party’s national platform.
Following congressional approval and ratification by the required number of state legislatures, it was also Bryan’s “pleasant duty” as the new U.S. Secretary of State to affix his signature on April 8, 1913, to the last document needed to make it an official part of the Constitution.
Most Americans today know of Bryan from his role in the 1925 Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution in a Tennessee public school. The play and film, "Inherit the Wind," cast his somewhat fictionalized character as a crabbed, narrow-minded, reactionary fundamentalist standing in the way of change.
Few characterizations could be more wrong. Bryan actually stands as the most radical or progressive figure ever to win the nomination of a major American political party.
Next to his broadsides against “plutocrats,” “the interests of Wall Street,” and “the idle holders of idle capital,” the speeches of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren pale. Bryan favored the government ownership of railroads and telephone companies, municipal ownership of utilities, the dismantling of “corporate trusts,” a federal law preventing “profiteering” and a state system of old age pensions (later called Social Security).
Even Bryan’s movement into the fundamentalist Christian camp in the 1920s had more complex roots. He personally cared little about the biology side of evolution; his concern was political. On reading Darwin’s "The Descent of Man," he criticized the social implications of “survival of the fittest.” Such teachings, he told a friend, would “weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth.”
Importantly, in all of his politics, Bryan always returned to the question of democracy. Called the "Great Commoner" by his admirers, he held that “the nearer the government is brought to the voters, the better it is for both the government and the people.” For Bryan, this was a religious principle.
As historian Willard Smith summarizes, Bryan insisted “that the teachings of Christ applied … to the structure and administration of government,” just as to the conduct of an individual.
Bryan specifically pointed to Christ’s Great Commandment -- “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” -- as definitive.
“If fully lived up to,” he said, it “would solve every problem economic, social, [and] political.” As he explained in 1903, it was a mistake to limit the message of the Gospel simply to explaining “the plan of salvation.” Instead, “it is the duty of the new pulpit to set in motion moral and reformatory forces that shall penetrate to the very center of practical politics or to the center of any other stronghold of political vice and misrule.”
Bryan saw such “vice and misrule” in the unreformed Senate of his day. It was, he said, an aristocratic holdover from pre-democratic times that favored the wealthy and corrupt and too often defied the will of the electorate. Following his world lecture tour in 1906, he described a surge in democratic sentiments in such hitherto unlikely places as India and Russia. This left him “more strongly convinced than before” that the Senate must be “brought into harmony with the people.”
Today, there are calls among the populist right and some legal scholars for a repeal of the 17th Amendment. As one of the latter argues, the “Senate’s slide to popular democracy unyoked states and the national government in a way that has left the states nearly powerless to defend their position as other legitimate representatives of the people.”
Bryan would be unmoved by this appeal to states' rights. As he might reply, “that cow left the barn a long time ago.”