“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Federalist 47 begins a fascinating discussion of separation of powers. Thank you to Dr. Baker for your insights on this essay!
“Separation of powers,” and “checks and balances,” are often used interchangeably, but as Dr. Baker pointed out, they are two distinct terms. If our government had merely separation of powers, without the checks and balances, we could fall prey to tyranny through the separate “silos” of government. There would be no impeachment process for a President who violated the law; there would be no Senate confirmation of Supreme Court or high level Administration appointments. There would be no Presidential veto of legislation passed by Congress. And there would be no rulings on the Constitutionality of legislation passed by Congress.
But “checks and balances,” mean that powers cannot be totally separated. They are shared, and that is what creates the balance. The President shares legislative power with the Congress through his veto. The Congress shares executive branch power through their participation in the confirmation process and the impeachment process. The courts share legislative power in their ability to declare legislation brought to them for adjudication as unconstitutional. The states and federal government share responsibility for amending the Constitution through the amendment ratification process. And ultimately, the people are the final check on government, through their vote.
Our founding fathers put the greatest care and thought into designing a system of government that would best ensure our liberty. The structure of our government, under the United States Constitution, is designed to hold our liberty in a delicate balance. I picture our freedom suspended carefully, amidst an intricate structure, with interlocking parts, all dependent upon the other, yet with distinct columns and blocks representing the three branches of government, the federal government, and then the states. Changes to the structure cause our liberty to “shift,” and ultimately, it begins to disappear.
As we have discussed earlier, the 17th Amendment was a major change to the structure of our government. Other changes have happened in less obvious ways, but have had no less an impact on our liberty.
We must understand the careful structure of our government, as set forth under the Constitution, or else we will not know when the separation of powers, and the checks and balances are being disturbed. If we don’t notice when one branch usurps the powers of another, we may not notice the ensuing disappearance of our freedoms, until it is too late.
The Federalist Papers left by our founders are like an owners guide to our Constitution. They explain the Constitution, how it is constructed, why it is constructed as it is, and the historical framework they utilized to make the decisions they did. What a blessing it is that our founding fathers can speak their words of wisdom to us today, through these great papers.
Good night and God Bless,
Friday, July 2nd, 2010