Guest Essayist: John S. Baker, Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University

Although mentioned in previous essays, Publius formally began to address separation of powers in Federalist # 47.  Together with ## 48 and 51, #47 explained the unique understanding of that principle as built into the Constitution. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed that separation of powers was essential to liberty, but disagreed on what that required in a constitution. Unfortunately, over the last century, the term “separation of powers” has almost disappeared from the civic vocabulary in the United States and been replaced by the term “checks and balances,” a term with an overlapping, but different meaning.

Federalist #47 affirmed the principle upon which the Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”  Thus, the Founders did not believe that voting alone guaranteed liberty.

It must come as a surprise to many Americans to learn that the Federalists and Anti-Federalists emphasized separation of powers as an absolutely essential guarantee of liberty.  For many — if not most – Americans, the protection of liberty is primarily accomplished through the Bill of Rights.  The Federalist and Anti-Federalists agreed on the need for separation of powers, but not for a bill of rights. The Anti-Federalists criticized the proposed Constitution for a lack of a bill of rights, but the Federalists actually contended “that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution, but would even be dangerous.” Federalist #84.

Instead of mere “parchment barriers,” i.e. paper protections, the Framers presented a “well constructed Union.” Federalist ## 10 and 39 laid out the plan and purpose of the extended, (con)federal republic. Without separation of powers, however, that structure would have been insufficient to prevent the consolidation of power in the central government.  Both parts of the structure came under attack as contrary to fundamental principles of liberty. In #39, Publius admitted that if the plan of the Constitution actually did depart from the republican principle, it would be indefensible. He did likewise in #47, admitting that if the Constitution ”really [were] chargeable with this dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system.”.

For separation of powers, as for the extended confederate republic, see Federalist # 9, Montesquieu was the authority appealed to by both Federalists and Anti-Federalists.  As with the extended (con)federal republic, Publius explained in # 47 that the claim that the Constitution violates the principle of separation of powers is mistaken.  Montesquieu relied on his understanding of the British Constitution to explain separation of powers.  Publius correctly observed that in the British Constitution “the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments, are by no means totally separate and distinct from each other.” Indeed, the British Constitution actually involved a “checks and balances” system, rather than one of separation of powers as understood by both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.  That is to say, separation of powers as understood by Montesquieu and the Founders included a separate, co-equal judiciary.  Under the British (unwritten) Constitution, the judiciary has never been a separate, co-equal branch of government. Rather, at the time of our Founding, the British government involved a traditional governing system in which the one (the king), the few (the House of Lords), and the many (the House of Commons) checked and balanced each other.

Publius concluded that Montesquieu “did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency or no control over the acts of each other.”  (emphasis in the original) Rather, he said Montesquieu’s meaning “can amount to no more than this, that where the whole power of one department is exercised by the same hands which possess the whole power of another department, the fundamental principles of a free constitution are subverted.” (emphasis in the original).  He demonstrated the point by examining aspects of the British constitution, Montesquieu’s model.

Publius then considered the state constitutions.  He noted “that, notwithstanding the emphatical, and some instances, the unqualified terms in which this axiom has been laid down, there is not a single instance in which the several departments of power have been kept absolutely separate and distinct.” He addressed the constitutions of all but two of the states and quoted the “emphatical” language from a couple of them. While looking at the state constitutions in order to rebut the charge that the proposed Constitution violates separation of powers, Publius was not indicating that the state constitutions are an appropriate model for the new Constitution.

The last paragraph of #47 opened, stating “I wish not to be regarded as an advocate for the particular organizations of the several state governments.”  Indeed, the Framers created a government radically different from that of the state constitutions. In part, the differences were due to the fact of the federal constitution being one of limited powers, while the state constitutions have more general powers. In addition, however, the form of separation of powers in the federal Constitution differed significantly from that of the states.

In distancing himself from the state constitutions, Publius attempted to avoid giving offense by first offering a modicum of praise and an excuse for their deficiencies.  (“I am fully aware, that among the many excellent principles which they exemplify, they carry the strong marks of the haste, and still stronger of the inexperience, under which they were framed.). Nevertheless, Publius was clear that the state constitutions provided for separation of powers “on paper,” but not “in practice.” (“It is but too obvious, that, in some instances, the fundamental principle under consideration, has been violated by too great a mixture, and even an actual consolidation of the different powers; and in no instance has a competent provision been made for maintaining in practice the separation delineated on paper.”)

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Professor John S. Baker is the Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University.

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