Wouldn't it be nice to live a country with such a noble history? Alas, we live in this one.In the days of the "great" triumvirate, the Senate was the firewall of slavery, and all three of them did their part to protect the South's interests. (Even Webster, a Massachusetts man, threw in with slavery when the time came to defend the grotesque Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.)
When Reconstruction gave way to the Gilded Age, the Senate, still elected by the legislatures, became a different kind of firewall: the guardian of corporate privilege. That's what today's repeal advocates want back.
As for the "special interests," by 1890, they owned the state legislatures. It's a lot cheaper to buy up a small number of lawmakers than to influence a statewide election. Railroads, banks, mining companies and other corporations showered state officials with free passes, gifts, and outright bribes. In 1906, journalist David Graham Phillips scored a publishing sensation with The Treason of the Senate, an expose of corporate influence that gave rise to the term "muckraker." Phillips wrote that "the Senate is the eager, resourceful, indefatigable agent of interests as hostile to the American people as any invading army could be." That was because "a man cannot serve two masters. The Senators are not elected by the people. They are elected by 'the interests.'"
When special interests couldn't win election for their stooges, they often simply refused to allow any Senator to be named. Between 1890 and 1900, no fewer than fourteen Senate seats remained vacant because of legislative deadlock. In Oregon in 1897, the State House was so badly split over the Senate vacancy that it never convened at all. As George H. Haynes, the leading historian of the Senate wrote in 1912, legislative elections of Senators had "led not merely to an occasional assault and to fist-fights of the mob, but to threats of organized attack and resistance, and to the reign of martial law."
The 17th Amendment was not some ill-thought-out "burst of progressivism." The people didn't get drunk and wake up with a tattoo. It resulted from an extraordinary grass-roots campaign over thirty years, one of the most sustained and powerful in American history. The movement reached flood stage after 1900. When the Senate refused to approve direct election in 1910, popular fury led to the defeat of ten of the "no" votes. The next Congress meekly agreed to the amendment; it was ratified by state legislatures in less than eleven months -- one of the fastest ratifications in American history.
Did the 17th Amendment in some way harm the states? The answer depends on what you mean by state. If by "California," say, you mean the people of California, the answer is clearly no. Senators are still elected by state, and still work hard to represent their states on Capitol Hill. Senators consult with governors and state governments and advocate for their interests on the floor. The state governments maintain effective lobbying presences in Washington, and, as a result, general federal statutes often include provisions exempting state governments from their provisions or permitting state governments a significant say in how federal programs are administered. But the legislators don't call the shots: senators must closely attend to what their people want if they want re-election. And special interests spend freely to influence elections, but it's harder to tip a hundred thousand votes than to buy a hundred politicians.