Having experienced tyranny as subjects of the British Crown, the framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted to keep the federal government from becoming too powerful. To achieve that, they divided power among three distinct, independent branches -- legislative, executive and judicial. They also included a series of "checks and balances" – mechanisms that enable each branch to keep the other two from abusing their influence.
Separation of Powers
The framers of the Constitution were inspired by the writings of the 18th-century French political philosopher Montesquieu, who supported a government split into three branches. Article I of the Constitution establishes a legislative branch that is responsible for making laws, coining currency and declaring war, among other things. Article II creates an executive branch led by the president of the United States that enforces laws. According to Article III, it is up to the judicial branch, which comprises a nine-justice Supreme Court and other federal courts, to interpret laws and determine how they apply to individual situations.
How Checks and Balances Work
While the division of powers is in itself a way to avoid tyranny, checks and balances allow each of the three branches to further curb the others' influence, while protecting its own. The president, for example, has the power to veto laws passed by Congress. With a two-thirds majority vote, however, Congress can override a presidential veto. The Supreme Court has the right to overturn laws it finds unconstitutional, but the Senate must confirm all judicial nominations, which are made by the president. Congress can also impeach and remove the president from office.
Pros of Checks and Balances
Founding father and U.S. president James Madison defended checks and balances in Federalist 51, an essay in a series published from 1787-88 that offered arguments in favor of the Constitution. Madison wrote, "...you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." The advantage of checks and balances, as Madison explained, is that they prevent abuse of power by having the government limit its own influence.
Cons of Checks and Balances
Critics of checks and balances note that the system complicates the policy-making process and makes it more time-consuming. At its worst, the system can result in a stalemate among the three branches. Some political scientists also argue that checks and balances are not compatible with true democracy, because they can force the majority to give in to minority interests.
- Bill of Rights Institute: Americapedia - Federalist No. 51
- Bill of Rights Institute: Americapedia - Separation of Powers
- Bill of Rights Institute: Americapedia - Checks and Balances
- Auburn University: A Glossary of Political Economy Terms - Checks and Balances
- National Center for Constitutional Studies: Checks And Balances
- U.S. National Archives and Records Administration: The Charters of Freedom - Constitution of the United States
- USA.gov: U.S. Federal Government
- Library of Congress: THOMAS - About the Federalist Papers
- USHistory.org: Creating the Constitution
- Zakai/iStock/Getty Images