A Review of The Road to Mass Democracy: Original Intent and the Seventeenth Amendment (Routledge, 2017) by C.H. Hoebeke
On April 8, 1913, the requisite three quarters of the State legislatures kneecapped themselves, surrendering to “the people” their authority to elect Senators of the United States. The ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for the direct popular election of Senators, was officially declared on May 31, and with it one of the final ramparts of the original Constitution fell to the rising tide of egalitarian mass democracy. Though the Seventeenth Amendment is by no means the worst or the final depredation upon States’ Rights, it is indeed extremely significant, a great contribution to the revolutionization and overthrow of the America our forefathers bequeathed us; notwithstanding this significance, however, the Seventeenth Amendment remained largely unexamined until C.H. Hoebeke’s informative study, The Road to Mass Democracy.
The Seventeenth Amendment has become so enshrined in the popular consciousness that one is hard-pressed to find any American, of any political tradition, who is aware of the fact that Senators were not always directly elected by popular vote. As with every other assault on the foundations of our constitutional “republic of republics”, to use Bernard Sage’s term, the average American, even the most nominally “conservative” American, simply believes that “this is the way things are”, that the present system has always existed as it presently does. We have forgotten, for example, that America was never a rights-based democracy, that the Bill of Rights is universally misconstrued as a conferral of individual rights to, rather than the enumerated protections of States from the Federal government that it is. We have forgotten that the Bill of Rights applied only to the Federal government, that the specious doctrine of “incorporation” is yet another judicial creation spun of whole cloth. It is only the historically unprecedented “constitutionalism” of the twentieth century that focused “on individual rights that supposedly have been secured and protected through the power of government…The original, unamended Constitution was not concerned with defining what private citizens had the right to do, but with what the Federal government had the right to do and under what circumstances. Indeed, the unamended Constitution, properly applied, made a Bill of Rights unnecessary, which is why its authors submitted it to the States for ratification without one.”
American history has been recast as a valiant struggle from retrograde idiocy to progressive utopia, as a sort of “fulfilment” of the Founders’ vision of equality, when in fact the reverse is true, the exact opposite of the jaundiced narrative that our credentialed “constitutional scholars” bludgeon us with. The history of American “constitutional” jurisprudence is the history of retreat, of flight from the original Constitution, of the reduction of once-proud States to the condition of vassalage, even peonage. The Regime of war, debt, and arbitrary protototalitarian power whose tentacles emanate from the District of Columbia is not merely unconstitutional, but anti-constitutional, antithetical and “opposed to the purposes for which the Constitution was created.” The Federal government has become “the arbiter of its own powers”, and the nation “founded in suspicion of standing armies and entangling alliances, in the belief that war was the greatest destroyer of liberty that could befall a people, has sacrificed the blessings of two oceans and militarily weaker neighbors in exchange for the self-appointed responsibility of garrisoning the world. It is a posture that prompts foreign lobbies to intrigue over American military deployment and makes every outpost a tripwire, every provincial quarrel a matter of national honor, a sacrifice of blood and wealth which is sold to the voters as an existential struggle.” How did this happen?
The eradication of most of our constitutional barriers to mass democracy bears a large part of the blame for our present corrosion. Hoebeke traces the inexorable march of egalitarianism through the realm; though the Founders were generally fervently hierarchical, that is, anti-egalitarian, the idea of universal suffrage and direct democracy was embryonically present in the rhetoric of the War of Independence. Through the days of the early Republic, majoritarian sentiment gradually became unstoppable, for, as we see today, “anyone who suggests that the popular majority might make wiser decisions if it were prevented from making hasty decisions is likely to be assailed for ‘not trusting the people’, while defending the necessity of institutions with power to counter majoritarian urges invariably elicits the rebuke of ‘elitism.’” The paradox of popular sovereignty, as Hoebeke formulates it, is that “a people who respect their constitution have little need of one. It is a redundancy, a written testament to what is already etched in their character, whereas a people most in need of constitutional restraints is also the most intolerant of them and will not be bound by them for long.” The desire to legislate “is not a characteristic of law-abiding people…the lawmaking regime seems to thrive best where the responsibility for self is least in evidence.”
Egalitarianism makes democracy fundamentally incompatible with decentralization; stated differently, the perpetual quest for “equality” and “freedom” requires the creation of authoritarian, panoptic sociopolitical enforcement mechanisms. Direct democracy thus necessarily leads to the total and mutual dissociation of politicians and their constituents that we see today. Given this quite obvious fact, Hoebeke asks, “Why…did Americans of that time choose to elect Senators by popular vote, en masse, in a constituency of millions, when, under the previous procedure, they had only to vote in a county or district for a State legislator, who would in turn elect a Senator on their behalf?” The original, constitutional, method “was a more personable arrangement. The average citizen would not have his vote swallowed up in a Statewide constituency. There would be no need for mass-marketing Senate candidates, and therefore no justification for the prodigal spending…This in turn would reduce the necessity for financial support, and whatever political obligations such support entailed.” Yet “the people”, in their struggle for more power, chose to disempower themselves and relinquish their identities into an amorphous, undifferentiated mass. As Edward Gibbon wrote, “The fine theory of a republic insensibly vanished.”
The Way We Were
We have forgotten that United States Senators were elected indirectly by their State legislatures, and the reason for this. In understanding this reason, we must understand that the Framers were largely terrified of democracy, and that this is why the United States were never a democracy, but rather a constitutional republic. Alexander Hamilton, with whom we Southerners admittedly have a volatile relationship at best, observed that “a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.” At the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry, referring to the Articles of Confederation, noted that “the evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.” Even the ardent Anti-Federalist George Mason agreed that “we had been too democratic.” Roger Sherman concurred that “the people immediately should have as little to do as may be about the Federal government”, and Edmund Randolph declared that their guiding purpose in drafting the Constitution was to constrain “the turbulence and follies of democracy.” Speaking of direct democracy, John Dickinson said that popular election “would only unite the thirteen small streams into one great current pursuing the same course without any opposition whatever.” In a private letter to John Jay, George Washington warned that in a democracy, “it is much to be feared that the better kind of people being disgusted with the circumstances, will have their minds prepared for any revolution whatever. We are apt to turn from one extreme to another.”
Conservatism was thus the defining feature of the Senate, and the Federal government writ large, with the sole exception of the House of Representatives. Senators were elected by State legislators because these legislators, being more finely attuned to the local, particularized interests of their smaller numbers of constituents, were “selected with greater competence on the part of the people”, serving as intermediaries to elevate to the Senate only “those men only who have become the most distinguished by their abilities and virtue.” A further advantage of indirect election, or the addition of degrees of separation from “the popular tumult”, was that Senators would be able to speak more candidly on the issues under their purview. Indeed, Hoebeke explains, Senators were elected by their respective State legislatures “because the uninhibited discussions for which it was intended required a smaller membership, which in turn entailed broader, Statewide constituencies.” Popular election was dismissed, “even in those days of sparse population, as a mockery of the true principles of representation. Candidates would have too little acquaintance with any but the largest or most vocal interests.” The Senate, therefore, was a counterweight against “the natural weight of democracy.” The Senate was to be “the great anchor of the government”, an inertial restraint upon the ephemeral whim of the House and the ambition of the Executive.
Perhaps the most important function of indirect Senatorial election, however, as we have alluded to, was that “the Founders also believed that the legislators commanded a higher and broader view of their State, and were thus deemed more competent than the electorate at large in selecting Senators.” Additionally, “to a degree not possible between the people and any other agent in the original federal scheme, a State legislator could know the mind of his constituents, and vice versa. In turn, his choice for Senators and Presidential Electors could likewise be made with the competence that only a first-hand acquaintance can provide.” The key to understanding the originally intended purpose of the Senate is that Senators were to represent their States, not “the people” thereof. Moreover, we must note that “the voice of a United States Senator was the voice of the people, refined and filtered through indirect elections, and articulated via the constitutional processes.” Future Justice James Iredell said at the North Carolina ratification convention that Senators were to be “the most respectable men in the State, men who had given strongest proofs of their attachments to the interests of their country.” Alexis de Tocqueville, observing the early Republic in 1834, marveled at the Senate’s “eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note, whose arguments would do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe.”
De Tocqueville saw that the erasure of the representative hierarchy would be to “run the risk of perishing miserably on the shoals of democracy.” The conception of suffrage as an inviolable right, as opposed to its true status as an earned privilege, led to the progressive elimination of voter qualifications and the establishment of universal suffrage. This is “the highest good” in egalitarian thought, rephrased as “universal participation, regardless of the consequences.” Hoebeke remarks that “it is significant that the process of universalizing the suffrage was in many States followed by constitutional amendments that detailed the penalties for voting fraud, bribery of officials, and a host of other unethical practices beyond the need of mention in earlier times, when the right to cast a ballot was bestowed as a mark of merit.” When his beloved Virginia proposed to abolish the property qualification, John Randolph of Roanoke ferociously assailed the thought; quite presciently, he recognized that once suffrage was cast as an a priori right, its direct and universal application would be unlimited and inescapable. Randolph stated that “it is because I am unwilling to give up this check [of the States upon the Federal government], or to diminish its force, that I am unwilling to pull down the edifice of our State government from the garret to the cellar; aye, to the very foundation stone.” To extend suffrage, he continued, was tantamount to asking “an industrious and sagacious Hollander if you may cut his dikes, provided you make your cut only of a certain width. A rat hole will let the ocean in.”
Thus, the original Constitution of the United States protected natural inequalities, with the Senate as a bastion of hierarchical authority to resist the majoritarian impulse, to maintain stability over the Moloch of “Progress.” The point was not “whether the people governed universally, but whether they concentrated their focus upon the few who were constitutionally accountable for the general welfare. In the governance of the States, the legislature was the most logical source of popular attention. No other institution combined in the same degree such prominent visibility, yet local accessibility, which made it the ideal body to consider those affairs which affected the whole community, yet were beyond the daily scope of the individual citizen.” Hoebeke affirms that, “unquestionably, the American Constitution was meant to sustain the balance, not the speed, responsiveness, or progress of legislative activity.” Indirect election was also designed in order to reduce the likelihood that the House and the Senate could both be coopted by the same forces, strengthening the now-nonexistent formulation of checks and balances. The Senate, it was thought, could not be corrupted unless the State legislatures were also corrupted; as Justice Joseph Story once wrote of this aspect of federalism, “Without the intervention of the State legislatures, the President of the United States cannot be elected at all; and the Senate is exclusively and absolutely under the choice of the State legislatures. The Representatives are chosen by the people of the States…How is it possible, under such circumstances, that the national government can be dangerous to the liberties of the people, unless the States, and the people of the States, conspire together for their overthrow?”
Only a handful of Senators opposed their transformation from guardians of their States to national politicians, their surrender of the Senate’s role of “restraining the excesses of popular government.” Senator Elihu Root rewrote the proposition of the Seventeenth Amendment as such: “Whereas the people of the several States have proved incompetent to select honest and faithful legislators in their own States. Resolved, That the Constitution of the United States be so amended as to relieve the people from the consequences of their incompetency by taking from the State legislatures the power to choose Senators of the United States and vesting that power in the same incompetent hands.” Root warned that “if the State government is abandoned…the tide that now sets toward the Federal government will swell in volume and power…The time will come when the government of the United States will be driven to the exercise of more arbitrary and unconsidered power, will be driven to greater concentration, will be driven to extend its functions into the internal affairs of the States.” Root thus emphasized one of Hoebeke’s most interesting conclusions; while it is tempting to view the Seventeenth Amendment as a usurpation of States’ Rights by the Federal Leviathan, the Amendment in reality signified a voluntary abdication of rightful State authority to the Blob in Washington. Obviously, then, Hoebeke states, the State legislatures could not be trusted to govern, given their ratification of the Amendment. Indeed, the Progressives’ success in overthrowing the indirect election prescribed by the Constitution “was the very proof that it could not withstand the tides it was designed to deflect.” This massive surrender and transfer of power inevitably fed the nascent administrative state, the postconstitutional Regime that has held us in thrall for the better part of a century.
Root saw that, instead of competent, autonomous States, “we shall go through the cycle of concentration of power at the center while the States dwindle into insignificance, and ultimately the breaking up of the great Republic upon new lines of separation.” Indeed, the “efficient, responsible use of Federal power was not possible without the States taking up their fair share of the deliberative burden.” In other words, Hoebeke explains, “Without strong representative institutions in the States, Congress would get weighed down by the minutiae of legislative and administrative burdens that should rather be borne locally…without statesmen in the national legislature willing to withstand constituent pressures — statesmen whom State legislatures no longer had responsibility for promoting — Congress would buckle under the tonnage of special interest legislation that members in both houses have had to vote upon, largely without reading.” Root also knew that direct, popular elections would make a mockery of the institutions of government by subjecting Senators to the indignities of campaigning, as well as reduce the deliberative role of Senators, replacing it with ephemeral whim. The Senate, Root stated, was devised to consist of elder statesmen, great men who had “attained the respect of their fellow citizens”, and were “willing to undertake the burdens of public office”, but were “unwilling to seek it”, who would “accept the burden as a patriotic duty”, but would “never subject themselves to the disagreeable incidents, the labor, the strife, the personalities of a political campaign.” The kind of man who would seek Senatorial office by campaign was cut of a lower cloth than the man the Framers had pictured when they created the office.
Furthermore, Root warned, “this will cease to be a deliberative body if every Senator has to convince, to explain to the great body of the people of the State every act he performs and every concession he makes.” The honesty required of a Senator would soon give way to the treacly refuse that disgraces the Senate floor today. Senator Weldon Heyburn noted that any malcontent with a coterie of “half a dozen friends under a lamp post” could call themselves “the people.” He challenged his colleagues, “I am looking for a reason, in this hour and this moment, for entering upon the change, and I have not heard any reason given. Is it ambition that someone should want to be known hereafter as the man who changed the Constitution of the United States or amended it? Is it ambition that some man or some men have failed under the system that has stood the test of a century to obtain that which he wanted and, failing to get it, seeks to brush away the barrier that stood between him and his ambition? Is that it?” Senator Porter McCumber was more succinct, declaring that the principle of the Seventeenth Amendment was that of the lynch mob, both of which shared the premise that the Deity of “the people” never erred and required no restraints.
The Way We Are
In 1913, Hoebeke explains, “the wave of mass democracy” crashed “against the edifice of original intent”, and “the waters finally rose above the Federal level, having steadily submerged the system of representative checks and balances for more than a century in the States. The States were supposed to be fail-safe dikes against the national democracy, but given their own democratic proclivities, they could not indefinitely uphold the original mode of Federal elections against the egalitarian tide. Structurally weakened, the State legislatures finally gave in…the jubilation over the Seventeenth Amendment was proof enough that the American polity was already out of kilter.” Hoebeke traces the various arguments for the Seventeenth Amendment in great detail, but for our purposes it will suffice merely to note that the Amendment “offered more democracy to cure the evils of democracy.”
As Hoebeke puts it, “Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the American people had come to believe that the Constitution was a democratic instrument, and when it failed to work as such, it was the Constitution, not the assumptions, that had to be changed.” Contrary to contemporary popular opinion, direct election actually accomplished nothing but to give “the people” less control over their destinies than they had under the original method of indirect election. The Seventeenth Amendment went very far in the debasement of States into mere geographic designations, competing for an opportunity to suck from the Federal teat. Direct democracy is not the freedom that it is billed as, but rather the centralization and consolidation of power, “the very definition of power.” Popular election “simply multiplied the voices which called upon the government for aid and protection, so that none but the largest or loudest interests could be heard.” In fact, the greater the level of democratization in the electoral process, the greater its potential corruption; the vast expansion of the Senatorial electorate meant that an equally vast amount of organizational and monetary attention would be devoted to campaigns, as “the range of interests in any one State were usually too broad to make direct appeals without a well-financed structure of coordination.” Senate races are now enormous financial machines, funded by shadowy interests who rarely reside in the State at issue.
The “sad truth”, the single greatest irony of the movement for direct democracy, is that “that the average citizen is apt to know far less about the character and conduct of his Senator than he did before direct elections…It was predicated in large part on the ability of the modern media to inform the public…A hundred years ago, entire speeches from Senate proceedings were quoted verbatim in the daily newspapers. Today, Senators vie with each other for as few as five-second soundbites on the evening news.” The total putrefaction of the American media today is responsible for part of the failure of the Seventeenth Amendment, which, as Hoebeke noted, was predicated upon the belief that mass media would better inform the voting public, enliven electoral turnouts, and thus make “the people” more engaged and competent in the making of consequential decisions. Relatedly, though, universal direct suffrage, especially in the context of the burgeoning administrative state, required more and more of the voter, who had to become a sort of utopian “omnicompetent” citizen, well-versed in an ever-proliferating web of issues and candidates.
Those State legislatures that voluntarily ceded away one of their most important powers would be astonished today to see the results; as Hoebeke points out, it would have been “unimaginable, even to the most ardent of nationalists, that the people would eventually lose their sense of local community so completely that most of the eligible electorate would not know the names of their own State legislators.” As the direct consequence of succumbing to the siren song of mass democracy, the enticements of the egalitarian seductress, “the respect with which [State legislatures] were popularly regarded, and the quality of men they attracted, subsided proportionally with the amount of control that was taken from them.” Part of this decline in the quality of State legislators, once regarded with more respect than national legislators, just as Governors were accorded more esteem than the President, is due to the fact that, “having started with the premise that all men were by the laws of nature equal in their political rights, it was a short step to supposing that the ordinary voter was the equal of his representative in determining the general laws, and from thence to the will of his constituents.” In other words, the voter stopped electing men whom he knew to be his betters. The decline of the State legislator occurred in tandem with the collapse of the Senator. Merely look at the menagerie of buffoons who currently shuffle the vaunted halls of the Senate. Not only can Lindsey Graham or Mazie Hirono not hold a candle to John C. Calhoun, but I doubt very much that they could even read, let alone understand, Calhoun’s Disquisition or Discourse.
Hoebeke correctly sees that “the egalitarian finds gratification in everyone having an equal vote…It concerns him little that the individual voter has statistically zero influence over the outcome of mass decisions, and even less that this enormous power in which he imagines himself to be participating was born out of the corruption of the representative hierarchy, without which checks and balances are doomed and federalism is a dead letter.” Direct appeals to “the people” are “invariably mass appeals, requiring that even the most sensitive and complex proposals be addressed to the lowest common denominator.” Paradoxically, mass democracy inspires apathy, for the individual recognizes that his power has been dissolved into a faceless horde; increased suffrage breeds decreased participation, such that the majoritarianism that defines the American body politic today cannot even be said to truly represent the will of a true majority. In any case, the true will of the majority is perhaps even more terrifying, as the parallel demographic collapse of traditional America and overwhelming deluge of aliens, as well as the rampant Leftism of “our” alienated and alienating urban morasses of despair, has already shifted the weight of democracy against us.
Though the United States have never been more “democratic”, “it has never been more plutocratic in its political rewards. The government that is reluctant to require even basic proof of citizenship as a qualification to vote is the same government that loans hundreds of billions of dollars on exceedingly generous terms to politically-connected enterprises deemed too big to fail, regardless of their” criminal and ruthlessly usurious mismanagement.” Despite the fact that “practically any warm body…may cast a vote for the highest office in the land, the government of the United States is more intrusive and more arbitrary than at any time in its history. The solicitation of votes by our increasingly poll-driven, image-conscious politicians, obliged at all times to appear in public as regular folk, coincides miraculously with…runaway legislation, regulation, confiscation, violation, currency inflation, and war.” Significantly, we witness today the determination of our ruling class and its legions of demographic puppets to install a “perfected” popular democracy. Calls grow apace for the abolition of the Electoral College and the United States Senate, placing the nation in thrall to the whims of the hostile populations of “our” population centers, and other fraudulent measures, including felon suffrage, Statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, mail-in and online voting, and illegal alien suffrage.
As one more turn is completed in the revolutionary spiral, it would be the height of hubris “to forget that all empires have perished, some of the greatest of which began as republics.” It might now be time not to “get out” the vote, but to suppress the vote, to restore the “natural aristocracy”, the inegalitarian, hierarchical Republic that was so graciously entrusted to us so long ago. Following the example of Ulysses, we will have to go to extreme lengths to resist the sirens singing us to our ruin. If we do not act, it will not only continue to be true that in our day, every man did that which was right in his own eyes, but our condition will continue to rapidly deteriorate. At the same time, however, it may now be too late to rein in the darkness that “democracy” has unleashed — what good is locking the barn doors if the horses have already escaped?
This means that any repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment would have to be merely one part of a comprehensive, systematic States’ Rights program to recapture the power that has been, whether stolen or surrendered, removed from our grasp. Although dithering about constitutional issues at this moment in time seems silly, it isn’t; regardless of what happens to our nation in the darkening future, we will have to contemplate what comes next. We cannot repeat the same mistakes, of which universal suffrage and overdemocratization are indubitably included. There is nothing to prevent us from introducing voter qualifications such as property ownership, taxpayer status, or basic constitutional, historical, or civic tests. When apologists for the horrific, orgiastic spasms of political and racial violence that we are witnessing celebrate that “this is what democracy looks like”, they are precisely correct, if we define “democracy” in the popular universalist form that the American ruling class has for much of the past century. Democracy means inherently, necessarily, and wholly unjustified and unjustifiable rioting, based on hastily-drafted lies. Democracy means debased, defiled, and profaned altars, burnt cars, shattered glass, and broken dreams. Democracy means collapse. Democracy means Hell. The Founders knew this. Over the centuries, we forgot. Might we now remember? Welcome to Year Zero of the Cultural Revolution.