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Tuesday, July 18, 2023

How a Corrupt US Senator Helped Give Us the 17th Amendment

William A. Clark created many job opportunities for Montanans, but don't count the 17th Amendment among his “achievements.”

Image Credit: Public Domain (photo by Pirie MacDonald

Mark Twain never cared much for politicians. A famous remark falsely attributed to him nonetheless stuck for decades because it resonated as quintessentially Twain. He was supposed to have said, upon the passing of a politician he didn’t like, “I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”

We do know for certain that it was Twain who authored these remarks in 1907 about a politician from Montana:

He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.

Ouch!

The object of Twain’s wrath was William A. Clark, a Pennsylvania native who eventually moved to Montana and made fortunes in banking, mining, newspapers, railroads and other ventures. He, along with Marcus Daly and Frederick Heinze, was one of the three “copper kings” so eloquently portrayed in C. B. Glasscock’s classic 1935 book, The War of the Copper Kings.

Helena, not Anaconda, is the capital of Montana today largely because Clark dumped a lot of personal money into the effort to make it so. Controversy was never far behind whatever Clark undertook, but if there’s one thing he did that clearly hurt the state and the country, it was his contribution to the passage of the 17th Amendment.

America’s Founding Fathers created a constitution in which the principle of “federalism” was a vital pillar. That’s the idea of a separation of powers between a general, national government and the states that formed it. The Founders wanted to avoid the concentration of power by dispersing it, because nothing in history has proven more toxic to liberty than power unchecked.

One of the elements of American federalism involved the selection of U.S. senators. While the members of the House of Representatives are chosen by popular vote in districts of roughly equal population, state legislatures chose senators (two per state). Since ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, however, senators have been chosen by statewide popular vote.

During the debate over the Amendment, an 1899 scandal involving Clark figured prominently. He had been appointed a U.S. Senator by the Montana legislature but the Senate refused to seat him when it became known that he had bribed legislators for their votes. “Progressive” reformers used the scandal to get the 17th Amendment passed. “Trust the people, not legislatures!” they cried.

For sure, corruption in state capitals was not unknown. In 1875, for example, William Sharon bankrupted most of the Nevada legislature by convincing its members to make him a senator in exchange for “confidential” but bogus investment advice.

In his own defense, Montana’s William A. Clark said, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”

It seems likely that popular election of senators simply transferred corruption from state capitals to Washington. (When the Montana legislature again named Clark a senator in 1901, the Senate seated him, and he served a six-year term). A few years ago, a study by George Mason University law professor Todd Zywicki concluded there is “no indication that the shift to direct election did anything to eliminate or even reduce corruption in Senate elections.”

Zywicki pointed out that if state legislatures still chose our senators, some bad stuff from Washington such as unfunded federal mandates would never happen. And the states, which must balance their budgets because they can’t print money, might exert needed pressure to stop D.C.’s reckless deficit spending. I suspect the Founders had it right in the first place, and the “progressive” reformers of 1913 did us no favors on this matter.

William A. Clark created many job opportunities for Montanans and was generous to worthy causes in the state. His 34-room Victorian mansion in Butte is a popular Bed & Breakfast home and tourist site to this day. But I wouldn’t count the 17th Amendment among his “achievements.”

(Editor’s Note: The original version of this essay was published in April 2023 by the Frontier Institute in Montana).

For Additional Information, See:

Is It Time To Repeal the 17th Amendment? by John M. DeMaggio

5 Constitutional Amendments For Americans to Consider by Rory Margraf


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.