A Popular Federal Government – Oregon’s Gift to America

Artilce from Greg Wasson. Wasson runs a legislative research service in Salem, and can be reached at http://www.OregonStatutes.biz.

The federal government drafted in Philadelphia barely deserved the label “popular.”

– The Electoral College, not the people, selected the President;

– The various state legislatures appointed the federal senate; and,

– These two semi-aristocratic institutions, insulated from the electorate as it were, decided who would sit on the federal bench.

Only members of the House of Representatives — 1/6th of the federal government — held their seats due to a free and fair vote. Moreover, who got to vote was a decision left to the states, many, if not all, of which denied the franchise to a majority of their citizens.

As America strived toward its destiny, this elitist structure began to crumble. Suffrage became increasingly universal — at least, among white males — appointed governors gave way to popularly-elected chief executives, and, proposed state constitutions routinely required public ratification.

The first formal attempts to replace the appointed U.S. Senate predate the Civil War. A decade or two after that conflict, however, the movement really began to heat up.

State electorate after state electorate approved the idea of direct election at non-binding referenda.

Legislature after legislature petitioned Congress for the necessary amendment.

At least ten (10) states, including Oregon, called for a constitutional convention.

By the turn-of-the-century, the elected U. S. House had nearly-unanimously approved the idea of direct election a number of times. Each time, the appointed U.S. Senate refused to concur.

As an aside, this was politics at its basest. More than the number of states needed to approve the federal constitutional amendment went on record as supporting direct election of U.S. Senators, yet, continued to appoint politicians who refused to send the proposal to the states.

So, legislators could assure their constituents that they, the legislators, supported popular government, but make sure that the old corrupt, elitist system maintained.

After all, those feeding at the public trough had a good thing going.

The U.S. Senate formed the pinnacle of the public auctions that passed for American governments as the 19th Century became the 20th.

The common, even prevalent, practice of political bribery combined with the immense federal wealth to transform the Free-Marketplace of Ideas into the Convenience-Store of Accumulation.

Those interested in national legislation toured the country buying senatorships for local scoundrels they could trust to vote correctly back in Washington. This they did by financing local legislative candidates, who, after pledging to support the “proper” senatorial aspirant received sufficient money for the graft, ballot stuffing and intimidation essential to the successful late 1800s campaign.

In 1898, Stephen A. Lowell, president of the Oregon Bar Association, lamented that representative government, theoretically a popular government, seemed at times to be a government “of the people, by the politicians, and, for the corporations .”

Lowell’s retirement speech signaled the second push for the Initiative Amendment, the first try having stalled after a razor-thin rejection by the Oregon Legislative Assembly. This time, association with the movement proved fashionable, and, the happening Oregonians of the day joined the effort.

The 1899 Legislature approved the amendment, the 1901 Legislature did likewise (in those days, two successive sessions of the legislature had to approve an amendment before it went on the ballot), and, in 1902 the Free People of Oregon approved the amendment by a vote of eleven (11) to one (1).

The 1901 Legislature also approved the “Mays Act,” whereby a straw ballot would be held so the people could express their choice for U.S. Senator, with the “election” to be canvassed immediately before the 1903 Legislature appointed Oregon’s next senator.

A rousing show of support for popular government. But, alas, a show is all it was.

The 1903 Legislature, after being told which candidate the people favored, proceeded to appoint a man who had received only a handful of votes at the much-vaunted “election.”

The People’s Power League responded by initiating an imaginative end-run on the federal constitution — and, the back room politics of Salem — that allowed Oregonians to “elect” their federal senators in 1907.

With one state choosing its senators at the ballot box, the old appointment system had no chance elsewhere. In 1913, the 17th Amendment spread direct election nation-wide.

Greg Wasson has spent 10 years researching the history of the evolution of popular rule in America. He operates a research service based at the Oregon State Archives. He specializes in researching the Oregon Revised Statutes, as enacted and changed by the Oregon Legislature.

Greg Wasson has degrees in Journalism, Political Science and Law from the University of Oregon. He runs a legislative research service in Salem, and can be reached at http://www.OregonStatutes.biz.

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