The Constitution embodies the political concepts of separation of powers, although those words are never mentioned in the text of the document. James Madison proposed an amendment as part of the Bill of Rights that would make separation of powers more explicit, but it was rejected. For members of the first Congress, the idea that legislative, executive and judicial powers were exercised by distinct and independent branches was implicit throughout the document.
Delegates drafting the Constitution found inspiration for the organization of America's new government in the writing of Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu, a French political philosopher writing in the 18th century. Montesquieu identified three types of governmental power: legislative, executive and judicial. According to his philosophy, as expressed in his book "Spirit of Laws," individual liberty was not possible unless those three types of power were separated into different institutions and exercised by different people. This inspired Americans who saw concentration of power as the root of tyranny.
Dividing Authority to Limit Power
Much of Montesquieu's philosophy focused on a clear split between those who made the laws and those responsible for their administration and enforcement. Not only does this separation limit power, it makes the government accountable to the people because they can easily determine who is at fault when a law doesn't succeed in fixing a problem. Although the Constitution doesn't mention the concept explicitly, it puts it into practice by delegating executive power to the president, legislative power to Congress and judicial power to the Supreme Court.
A Delicate Balance
Much of the debate over the ratification of the Constitution focused on whether the separation provided by the document adequately prevented one branch from being able to dominate the others. In practice, it's nearly impossible to separate the branches of government entirely -- the powers necessarily overlap. For this reason, defense mechanisms were put into the Constitution to allow each branch to check the authority of the others when they went too far. As James Madison wrote in support of the Constitution, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." Checks and balances also ensure that one branch needs help from the others in order to enact public policy.
Distribution of Power
The concept of separation of powers applies not only in federal government structure, but also in the division of authority between federal and state governments. State governments then allocate state governmental power similarly to the federal system. Some state constitutions, such as those of Virginia and Massachusetts, explicitly mention the concept of separation of powers as foundational to their government organization. This distribution makes it difficult for a small group of people to take over all levels of government, especially because different officials are elected at different times, for different terms, and by different constituencies. Beyond the state government, American governmental power is further divided into county and municipal governments that exercise relatively independent power within their own areas.
- The University of Chicago Press: The Founders' Constitution: Separation of Powers -- Introduction
- National Conference of State Legislatures: Separation of Powers -- An Overview
- University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law: Separation of Powers Under the United States Constitution
- Auburn University Department of Political Science: A Glossary of Political Economy Terms: Separation of Powers
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images