Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover both questions 31 and 32.
Q31: Who does a U.S. Senator represent?
A. All of the people in their home city
B. All of the people who voted for them
C. All of the people in the country
D. All of the people in their state
Q32: Who elects U.S. senators?
A. Every individual over 18 residing in their state
B. Citizens from their state
C. The Governor of their state
D. The state legislature of their state
The two different houses of Congress have different sizes because each is intended to represent a different constituency and serve a different purpose. The basic theory behind the Senate’s structure and representation of states is that it reinforces federalism—that is, the sharing of powers between federal and state governments to make sure neither is too powerful.
By representing the states, the Senate was intended to be particularly sensitive to not just the states’ interests but their sovereignty. Senators would be more likely to protect the people’s liberty by enforcing the constitutional limits on federal power, since that expanded federal power would inevitably come at the cost of their state governments’ jurisdiction (see Federalist 62).
While there was never a question that the ultimate role of the Senate was to create a body of representatives who would protect the rights of the people in their respective states, how those senators were chosen has changed significantly.
Originally, Article 1, Section 3, Paragraph 1 read:
"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."
This meant that each state’s legislature would choose the state’s two senators. While the system was designed to enable state legislators to promote distinguished political leaders to the Senate—and often succeeded at this—it also ended up creating a host of problems when it did not work as well.
An amendment to change state selection to popular elections was first introduced in 1826, with similar amendments periodically offered and even passing the House of Representatives throughout the nineteenth century. The process of having state legislators choose US Senators became more dysfunctional in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Some of the biggest, and often related, issues included vacant Senate seats when state legislatures could not agree on candidates, political corruption as corporations sought control of state legislatures to capture the Senate, and senators building political machines more focused on their own interests than those of either the state or the people of that state.
Many states began offering “advisory” elections, in which citizens would recommend their choice of senator, which the state legislatures would then officially select; this provided for de facto popular election in some—but not all—states.
Frustrated by the Senate’s refusal to make the much-desired change to direct election of all senators, by 1911, nearly two-thirds of the states applied for a constitutional convention to address the issue, taking advantage of the alternative method for proposing amendments provided by the Framers. To preempt the possibility of a convention, the Senate, finally, bowed to pressure and agreed to propose the 17th Amendment in 1911. (The House, which had again offered its own version, agreed to the Senate’s text a year later.)
After many years of debate, the 17th Amendment, ratified on April 8, 1913, changed the Constitution’s text to read:
“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.”
In other words, while senators still reinforce the structure of federalism, senators now directly represent, and are chosen by, the citizens of their states.
Both at the time and today some argue that the 17th Amendment was a mistake, and that federalism was better protected when state legislatures chose senators; state legislators would be sensitive to their own loss of power if Washington assumed authority over issues the Constitution left to the states. Others counter that the 17th Amendment actually ended up improving federalism, since one can choose state legislators to focus on state issues rather than simply treat them as a proxy vote for U.S. Senate.
The fact that it took nearly 90 years and the threat of a constitutional convention before changes were made to senatorial elections can be seen as both frustrating and heartening. It can be seen as frustrating in the sense that it took so long to amass the required momentum for change to take place, but also heartening in that the states were not helpless in the face of a Senate that refused to vote on the matter. Article V of the Constitution provided the states with the ability to bypass an obstructionist Congress and call for a constitutional convention, and they did-- ultimately forcing Congress to act. This exercise will have students write a journal entry from the perspective of a Senator considering whether to endorse direct election of Senators.
Provide each group with:
- Journaling Directions (17th Amendment)
- A copy of the background above.
A rubric is available if this is a graded activity.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes a rubric.
- Journaling is a solitary activity. However, depending on the age and/or skill level of the students, you may want to have them work in pairs.
- If that is the case, divide the class into pairs based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material. Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Pair those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- Explain to the students that they are going to pretend they are a senator and write a journal entry. Students will read about the 17th Amendment and then imagine that they are a senator during the debate over changing the Constitution and giving citizens the right to directly elect senators.
- Version A asks the students to imagine that they are a senator today. It requires them to write about an issue that is currently facing the nation. b. Version B asks the students to read about the 17th Amendment and then imagine that they are a senator during the debate over changing the Constitution and giving people the right to elect senators. This version requires higher-level thinking and is better suited for older students.
- Provide the students with the necessary materials.
- Version A: provide them with the instruction sheet.
- Version B: provide them with the instruction sheet and the reading.
- Make sure the students know that, because this is a journal, there are no “right” answers. The purpose of this activity is to help them think about issues from another point of view.
- It can also help you identify weaknesses in their knowledge base relating to the Constitution.
- Circulate throughout the room to help students as needed.
- If you wish, you can use this activity as a springboard into a class discussion once the students have finished.
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
- The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
- The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events and historical events.
The Founding Fathers created the two houses within the legislative branch to ensure that both the people and the states were represented. The Senate offers equal representation for each state, regardless of its population, which creates a structural guarantee of federalism, with the House representing the people of the United States.
The Senate is one half of the legislative branch. The other half is the House of Representatives. If the House of Representatives is made up of legislators elected to represent individual districts, who chooses senators? In other words, who do senators represent?
As Federalist 62 observes, the equal vote of each state in the Senate is “a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty. “ That, the author continues, ought to be equally pleasing to large and small states alike, since each would want to “guard, by every possible expedient, against an improper consolidation of the States into one simple republic.” Is the author right that all of the states would want to prevent such consolidation and protect states’ ability to govern on their own? Do we see this today? What current or historical events support or contradict this idea?