restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


The 17th Amendment:  A Backhanded Acknowledgement of States’ Rights

Jeff Adams

For several years now I’ve been heard organizations and individuals advocate repealing the 17th Amendment. Usually the reasoning is based on the problems with ever-centralizing, ever-growing government, the move of the American republic towards a democracy (read “mobocracy”), and the advocacy of States’ Rights.

Unfortunately, most Americans are too ignorant of their own history to understand that the United States isn’t a democracy, but a union of representative republics. Anyone who bothers to actually read the U.S. Constitution will see clearly we are a union of sovereign states, each guaranteeing “a republican form of government.” The idea of the founders was to have a strictly limited federal government, with the states handling the bulk of governmental matters (hence the constitution calling the federal government the “agent” of the states; a subordinate role for the federal government to the state governments.)  The argument about States’ Rights usually falls on deaf ears as being a “Southern thing” and an idea that died in the War Between the States. But that would only be true if the constitution died at the same time (which some would argue it did). American Nationalists (read neo-cons, faux patriots who scream “my country right or wrong,” and socialists) reject States’ Rights as an idea that was ever valid, but that would require a person to reject historical facts.

While the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment is far from being accepted by even a sliver of today’s population that can register on the political radar, the concept got a big shot in the arm in April of this year when U.S. Senator Zell Miller (D-GA) claimed that the 17th Amendment was to blame for the pathetic state of the U.S. Senate.

To backtrack for a moment, for the uninformed, the 17th Amendment is the provision that allows U.S. Senators to be directly elected by a state’s population. Prior to this amendment, Senators were selected by a state’s legislature. This allowed the states, as independent entities, to have a more direct say in what the federal government could do.  Basically, the Senators were the state’s mouthpieces in Washington D.C., ensuring that the federal government knew, and kept, its place. Remember, the U.S. Constitution set up a federal system of government, not a centralized system, to work with the member states of the union.

Simply put, the states would instruct their senators how to vote and act on issues, and thereby have a tight reign on the senators and a strong say in how the federal government acted. The idea of checks and balances wasn’t just between the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of the federal government. Checks and balances were between the people (House of Representatives), the states (Senate) and the rule of law (the Judiciary).

Having the Senators more directly representing the interests of the states as entities themselves, rather than attempting to appeal to the general population of a state en masse, was a clear design by the founders for protecting States’ Rights.  Any and all efforts to subvert this concept of balancing the interests of the people, the states as entities, and the union of states, is a betrayal of the U.S. Constitution, even the amending of the Constitution to allow the disruption of this balance. (Technically, the 17th Amendment was legal, but it upset the designed balance of interests, thus being contrary to the founders’ designs.) 

Amendments to address changing views on issues such as slavery, alcohol, voting rights, or clarifications of citizenship, procedures for the functioning of government, etc. reflect what the amendment process was for, and the founders’ anticipation of the need for some way to be flexible with the Constitution. However, the 17th Amendment changed the nature of the relationship between the people, the states, and the union. The founders would have objected to changing our relationship from a republic of republics to a mass democracy (and it is well documented that the founders despised democracy as mob rule).

Ironically, one of the arguments for direct elections of Senators was that the old system left Senators susceptible to corrupting influences by special interests. Direct elections certainly didn’t correct that, and in fact left them freer to sell themselves like whores to whoever would fill their re-election coffers.

The increase in federal power can be seen to grow at an increasingly faster rate after selection of Senators was removed from the state legislatures. Without this restriction on politicians, the Senate became a political body unanswerable to the states, and no longer did Senators have their state’s interest at heart or fear having to answer to the elected body they were suppose to represent (the state legislatures). Senators just became desirous of more and more power above and beyond the states, making the states subservient to their “agent,” the federal government. Remember, it is the Senate that ratifies treaties, confirms executive appointments and confirms judicial appointments. These items, within the federal government, were controlled by the states via their Senators. This is how the states had a say in what the federal government did, and how the federal government represented the union of states to the world. This is no longer so. The 17th Amendment cut the states out of the business of running the federal government.

Senator Miller has introduced a bill (S.J.Res. 35) to repeal the 17th Amendment. For those who see our republic dwindling away and want to recapture the rights God gave us, those rights our sovereign states are suppose to be defending within the union, you should call your Senators and demand they give this bill a hearing.

For all the abuse the South has taken over time, verbally and physically, for standing by the ideals of the founders concerning States’ Rights, it would be some consolation to see the 17th Amendment repealed.  It would put us back on the track to true liberty and the honoring of the Constitutional ideals the founders established, and would help to start putting the power back where it belongs:  with the states.  An interesting side note is that ironically the 17th Amendment, whether it gets repealed or not, is a backhanded acknowledgement of the reality that States’ Rights was not some misbegotten concept, but a political, constitutional concept the founders intended. 

The 17th Amendment highlights the fact that states were to have a role in controlling the federal government, were separate sovereign entities, and were not mere provinces of some monolithic nation. Enactment of the 17th Amendment wasn’t just a blow to States’ Rights, but a blow to our individual rights as the federal government has grown and taken over our lives. Its repeal would be a vindication of the States’ Rights arguments presented by Jefferson, Madison, Calhoun, and other Southerners devoted to true Constitutional government, including the Confederates who fought a war to defend the ideals of the founding fathers, as well as their rights.

May 20, 2004

Mr. Jeff Adams is the State Director of Education for the Texas chapter of the League of the South. He currently works as an industrial engineer in Houston, Texas. He may be reached for comment here.

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