In the United States’ early history, state legislatures often formally instructed their federal representatives on particular votes. This practice flourished for a century but then died out—a change that many scholars attribute to the Seventeenth Amendment. This Note argues that previous scholars have ignored other, more important, reasons for the demise of instructions.
The six-year term length for U.S. senators, combined with the increasingly rapid turnover in state legislatures, prevented binding instructions from becoming permanently entrenched. Instructions were held in place after the Founding only by constitutional culture, but even this did not last. After Southern Democrats vigorously used instructions to purge Whigs from the Senate in the 1840s and 1850s, the use of instructions was indelibly linked to the South. Not surprisingly, the doctrine of instructions was one of the casualties of the Civil War. Following the War, the roles were reversed: The states—especially the Southern states—were taking instructions from the federal government. Today, instructions still exist but as nonbinding “requests” for action. This new conception of instructions returns us full circle to James Madison’s conception of the proper role of instructions: a right of “the people . . . to express and communicate their wishes” to their representatives.