The three branches of the United States government are the Executive, Legislative and Judicial. The U. S. Constitution lays out the power and authority of each of these separate branches. It is important to note that the powers given to each branch are unique and separate and do not overlap or invade the authority of the other two.

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The Founders believed that consolidating executive, legislative, and judicial powers would threaten liberty, so to avoid this tragedy, they built our constitutional framework with checks and balances. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist 47 that “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.”

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Under President Obama, America has witnessed an unprecedented expansion of presidential power.  This is not merely the observation of political opponents.  Liberal law professor Jonathan Turley—who voted for President Obama—has reached the same conclusion:  “We are seeing the emergence of a different model of government in our country—a model long ago rejected by the Framers.”[1]  “What’s emerging,” according to Professor Turley, “is an imperial presidency, an über-presidency . . . where the President can act unilaterally.”[2]

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The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts
From the New York Packet.
Friday, February 1, 1788.

Author: James Madison

To the People of the State of New York:

HAVING reviewed the general form of the proposed government and the general mass of power allotted to it, I proceed to examine the particular structure of this government, and the distribution of this mass of power among its constituent parts. One of the principal objections inculcated by the more respectable adversaries to the Constitution, is its supposed violation of the political maxim, that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments ought to be separate and distinct. In the structure of the federal government, no regard, it is said, seems to have been paid to this essential precaution in favor of liberty. The several departments of power are distributed and blended in such a manner as at once to destroy all symmetry and beauty of form, and to expose some of the essential parts of the edifice to the danger of being crushed by the disproportionate weight of other parts. No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value, or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty, than that on which the objection is founded.

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. Were the federal Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, 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. I persuade myself, however, that it will be made apparent to every one, that the charge cannot be supported, and that the maxim on which it relies has been totally misconceived and misapplied. In order to form correct ideas on this important subject, it will be proper to investigate the sense in which the preservation of liberty requires that the three great departments of power should be separate and distinct. The oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu. If he be not the author of this invaluable precept in the science of politics, he has the merit at least of displaying and recommending it most effectually to the attention of mankind. Let us endeavor, in the first place, to ascertain his meaning on this point. The British Constitution was to Montesquieu what Homer has been to the didactic writers on epic poetry. As the latter have considered the work of the immortal bard as the perfect model from which the principles and rules of the epic art were to be drawn, and by which all similar works were to be judged, so this great political critic appears to have viewed the Constitution of England as the standard, or to use his own expression, as the mirror of political liberty; and to have delivered, in the form of elementary truths, the several characteristic principles of that particular system. That we may be sure, then, not to mistake his meaning in this case, let us recur to the source from which the maxim was drawn. On the slightest view of the British Constitution, we must perceive that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments are by no means totally separate and distinct from each other. The executive magistrate forms an integral part of the legislative authority. He alone has the prerogative of making treaties with foreign sovereigns, which, when made, have, under certain limitations, the force of legislative acts. All the members of the judiciary department are appointed by him, can be removed by him on the address of the two Houses of Parliament, and form, when he pleases to consult them, one of his constitutional councils. One branch of the legislative department forms also a great constitutional council to the executive chief, as, on another hand, it is the sole depositary of judicial power in cases of impeachment, and is invested with the supreme appellate jurisdiction in all other cases. The judges, again, are so far connected with the legislative department as often to attend and participate in its deliberations, though not admitted to a legislative vote. From these facts, by which Montesquieu was guided, it may clearly be inferred that, in saying “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates,” or, “if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers,” he did not mean that these departments ought to have no PARTIAL AGENCY in, or no CONTROL over, the acts of each other. His meaning, as his own words import, and still more conclusively as illustrated by the example in his eye, 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. This would have been the case in the constitution examined by him, if the king, who is the sole executive magistrate, had possessed also the complete legislative power, or the supreme administration of justice; or if the entire legislative body had possessed the supreme judiciary, or the supreme executive authority. This, however, is not among the vices of that constitution. The magistrate in whom the whole executive power resides cannot of himself make a law, though he can put a negative on every law; nor administer justice in person, though he has the appointment of those who do administer it. The judges can exercise no executive prerogative, though they are shoots from the executive stock; nor any legislative function, though they may be advised with by the legislative councils. The entire legislature can perform no judiciary act, though by the joint act of two of its branches the judges may be removed from their offices, and though one of its branches is possessed of the judicial power in the last resort. The entire legislature, again, can exercise no executive prerogative, though one of its branches constitutes the supreme executive magistracy, and another, on the impeachment of a third, can try and condemn all the subordinate officers in the executive department. The reasons on which Montesquieu grounds his maxim are a further demonstration of his meaning. “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body,” says he, “there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest THE SAME monarch or senate should ENACT tyrannical laws to EXECUTE them in a tyrannical manner. ” Again: “Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for THE JUDGE would then be THE LEGISLATOR.

Were it joined to the executive power, THE JUDGE might behave with all the violence of AN OPPRESSOR. ” Some of these reasons are more fully explained in other passages; but briefly stated as they are here, they sufficiently establish the meaning which we have put on this celebrated maxim of this celebrated author.

If we look into the constitutions of the several States, we find that, notwithstanding the emphatical and, in 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. New Hampshire, whose constitution was the last formed, seems to have been fully aware of the impossibility and inexpediency of avoiding any mixture whatever of these departments, and has qualified the doctrine by declaring “that the legislative, executive, and judiciary powers ought to be kept as separate from, and independent of, each other AS THE NATURE OF A FREE GOVERNMENT WILL ADMIT; OR AS IS CONSISTENT WITH THAT CHAIN OF CONNECTION THAT BINDS THE WHOLE FABRIC OF THE CONSTITUTION IN ONE INDISSOLUBLE BOND OF UNITY AND AMITY. ” Her constitution accordingly mixes these departments in several respects. The Senate, which is a branch of the legislative department, is also a judicial tribunal for the trial of impeachments. The President, who is the head of the executive department, is the presiding member also of the Senate; and, besides an equal vote in all cases, has a casting vote in case of a tie. The executive head is himself eventually elective every year by the legislative department, and his council is every year chosen by and from the members of the same department. Several of the officers of state are also appointed by the legislature. And the members of the judiciary department are appointed by the executive department. The constitution of Massachusetts has observed a sufficient though less pointed caution, in expressing this fundamental article of liberty. It declares “that the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them; the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them; the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them. ” This declaration corresponds precisely with the doctrine of Montesquieu, as it has been explained, and is not in a single point violated by the plan of the convention. It goes no farther than to prohibit any one of the entire departments from exercising the powers of another department. In the very Constitution to which it is prefixed, a partial mixture of powers has been admitted. The executive magistrate has a qualified negative on the legislative body, and the Senate, which is a part of the legislature, is a court of impeachment for members both of the executive and judiciary departments. The members of the judiciary department, again, are appointable by the executive department, and removable by the same authority on the address of the two legislative branches.

Lastly, a number of the officers of government are annually appointed by the legislative department. As the appointment to offices, particularly executive offices, is in its nature an executive function, the compilers of the Constitution have, in this last point at least, violated the rule established by themselves. I pass over the constitutions of Rhode Island and Connecticut, because they were formed prior to the Revolution, and even before the principle under examination had become an object of political attention. The constitution of New York contains no declaration on this subject; but appears very clearly to have been framed with an eye to the danger of improperly blending the different departments. It gives, nevertheless, to the executive magistrate, a partial control over the legislative department; and, what is more, gives a like control to the judiciary department; and even blends the executive and judiciary departments in the exercise of this control. In its council of appointment members of the legislative are associated with the executive authority, in the appointment of officers, both executive and judiciary. And its court for the trial of impeachments and correction of errors is to consist of one branch of the legislature and the principal members of the judiciary department. The constitution of New Jersey has blended the different powers of government more than any of the preceding. The governor, who is the executive magistrate, is appointed by the legislature; is chancellor and ordinary, or surrogate of the State; is a member of the Supreme Court of Appeals, and president, with a casting vote, of one of the legislative branches. The same legislative branch acts again as executive council of the governor, and with him constitutes the Court of Appeals. The members of the judiciary department are appointed by the legislative department and removable by one branch of it, on the impeachment of the other. According to the constitution of Pennsylvania, the president, who is the head of the executive department, is annually elected by a vote in which the legislative department predominates. In conjunction with an executive council, he appoints the members of the judiciary department, and forms a court of impeachment for trial of all officers, judiciary as well as executive. The judges of the Supreme Court and justices of the peace seem also to be removable by the legislature; and the executive power of pardoning in certain cases, to be referred to the same department. The members of the executive counoil are made EX-OFFICIO justices of peace throughout the State. In Delaware, the chief executive magistrate is annually elected by the legislative department. The speakers of the two legislative branches are vice-presidents in the executive department. The executive chief, with six others, appointed, three by each of the legislative branches constitutes the Supreme Court of Appeals; he is joined with the legislative department in the appointment of the other judges. Throughout the States, it appears that the members of the legislature may at the same time be justices of the peace; in this State, the members of one branch of it are EX-OFFICIO justices of the peace; as are also the members of the executive council. The principal officers of the executive department are appointed by the legislative; and one branch of the latter forms a court of impeachments. All officers may be removed on address of the legislature. Maryland has adopted the maxim in the most unqualified terms; declaring that the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government ought to be forever separate and distinct from each other. Her constitution, notwithstanding, makes the executive magistrate appointable by the legislative department; and the members of the judiciary by the executive department. The language of Virginia is still more pointed on this subject. Her constitution declares, “that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments shall be separate and distinct; so that neither exercise the powers properly belonging to the other; nor shall any person exercise the powers of more than one of them at the same time, except that the justices of county courts shall be eligible to either House of Assembly. ” Yet we find not only this express exception, with respect to the members of the irferior courts, but that the chief magistrate, with his executive council, are appointable by the legislature; that two members of the latter are triennially displaced at the pleasure of the legislature; and that all the principal offices, both executive and judiciary, are filled by the same department. The executive prerogative of pardon, also, is in one case vested in the legislative department. The constitution of North Carolina, which declares “that the legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of government ought to be forever separate and distinct from each other,” refers, at the same time, to the legislative department, the appointment not only of the executive chief, but all the principal officers within both that and the judiciary department. In South Carolina, the constitution makes the executive magistracy eligible by the legislative department.

It gives to the latter, also, the appointment of the members of the judiciary department, including even justices of the peace and sheriffs; and the appointment of officers in the executive department, down to captains in the army and navy of the State.

In the constitution of Georgia, where it is declared “that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments shall be separate and distinct, so that neither exercise the powers properly belonging to the other,” we find that the executive department is to be filled by appointments of the legislature; and the executive prerogative of pardon to be finally exercised by the same authority. Even justices of the peace are to be appointed by the legislature. In citing these cases, in which the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments have not been kept totally separate and distinct, I wish not to be regarded as an advocate for the particular organizations of the several State governments. I am fully aware that among the many excellent principles which they exemplify, they carry strong marks of the haste, and still stronger of the inexperience, under which they were framed. 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 that in no instance has a competent provision been made for maintaining in practice the separation delineated on paper. What I have wished to evince is, that the charge brought against the proposed Constitution, of violating the sacred maxim of free government, is warranted neither by the real meaning annexed to that maxim by its author, nor by the sense in which it has hitherto been understood in America. This interesting subject will be resumed in the ensuing paper.


Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2

2: He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

As Publius reminded his readers in the forty-seventh Federalist, Montesquieu called the Constitution of England “the mirror of liberty”—so esteemed for its separation of governmental powers. So long as no one person or set of persons can exercise legislative, executive and judicial powers, neither king nor aristocrats nor commoners can dominate the country. In the United States, where everyone is a commoner, separation of powers remains relevant to the sustenance of liberty. If “the accumulation of all powers” in “the same hands” can “justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny,” then even a cabal of commoners might so empower themselves, serving as lawgivers, judges, jurors and executioners over their fellow citizens.

But if separation of powers serves as an indispensable bulwark of political liberty (Publius continues), one must understand it rightly, as Montesquieu did. Montesquieu “did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over, the acts of each other.” He only meant that no one department may “possess the whole power of another department.” To make the three branches of government entirely independent of one another would amount to making three distinct governments—uncoordinated, ineffective, hardly able to govern at all. No person or persons could be held responsible for government action or, more likely, inaction.

The president’s power to make treaties and nominations exemplifies these principles of liberty and responsibility. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress negotiated treaties. This required the dispatch of one or more delegates, thus depriving one or more states of representation. On the other hand, a treaty, once ratified, is a law—indeed, a supreme law. The executive branch must not legislate. Further, if treaties are laws disputes will arise requiring judicial attention—the province of neither legislature nor executive. If neither the Congress nor the president alone can assume the responsibility of treaty making, the only remedy can be to divide treaty-making into two parts, assigning each part to a different branch.

Then there is the matter of federalism. Treaties are the nation’s business, but do the states not want their interests represented, as well?

The Framers’ solution: the executive branch will negotiate treaties; the Senate will ratify them; the Supreme Court will adjudicate case arising under them. But this separation of powers and duties does not and cannot imply isolation of powers and duties. Senators can advise the president on the treaty (before and after negotiations); although negotiations themselves ought to be confidential; they can then consent or ratify the treaty resulting from those negotiations. Thus both branches exercise mutual control over treaties without interfering with or encroaching upon one another.

The same goes for presidential appointments. Who will control the apparatus, the administration, of the American national state? Not Congress directly: as James Wilson argued at the Convention, “a principal reason for unity in the Executive was that officers might be appointed by a single, responsible person,” thus avoiding “intrigue, partiality, and concealment.” At the same time, complete presidential control over appointments could allow a president to create offices and fill them with his favorites—the very definition of “corruption” as the term was used in the eighteenth century, and one of the most frequent complaints against monarchy. (Recall the words of the Declaration of Independence: King George “has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance.”) Again, the solution was to divide and correlate two powers, giving nomination to the president and appointment to the Senate. The sovereign people can clearly observe both of these governing actions and finally hold their representatives responsible for them.

The construction of the presidential powers of treaty-making and of nomination thus addresses the crucial issues of the character of the American regime and the structure of the American state. The people retain their sovereignty through their elected representatives. No one set of representatives governs without restraint from other sets of representatives. Through the Senate, the states have a decisive `say’ in both international lawmaking and the composition of the national administration. Both republicanism and federalism are preserved.

Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.

Guest Essayist: George Schrader, Student of Political Science at Hillsdale College

Article 1, Section 7, Clause 2

2:Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law. But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by Yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively. If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.

The veto power contained in Article One, Section Seven, Paragraph Two of the Constitution is often trivialized as being a mere procedural formality.  While the Preamble provides sweeping statements of the values of the document, and the Bill of Rights proclaims rights every citizen holds dear, the veto power is for many no more than a step in the lawmaking process, devoid of any deeper constitutional significance.  Looking below the surface, however, reveals an important part of the philosophy and structure of the Constitution in this one procedural step.

Understanding the veto power means understanding the Founders’ idea of the separation of powers.  Born out of the Western European Enlightenment, this concept theorizes that government has very distinct powers, namely, the executive, legislative, and judicial.  In the American Constitution, an independent governmental institution was created for each of these powers.  Congress is granted the sole ability to legislate, the President the sole authority to execute the laws, and the courts the sole power to judge according to those laws.  This represents a revolution in government structure, as most previous governments attempted to wed two or more of these powers into a single entity, often resulting in tyranny.  By separating powers, the Founders hoped to dilute the powers of government and prevent any individual or branch from seizing control.

This is not to say, however, that the Founders believed that simply assigning each branch of government one political power would solve the problem of tyranny.  James Madison cringed at the idea of granting all of any power, be it legislative, executive, or judicial, to any one body.  He explains in Federalist Forty-Seven that the concentration of political power in any branch, “may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”  The Founders were therefore left with a dilemma.  Failure to separate the powers of government between several hands would quickly lead to the collapse of the government into tyranny.  However, allowing each branch to be miniature tyrants within their own power did not provide an acceptable alternative.  The resulting compromise is quite ingenious, and is demonstrated perfectly by the veto power.

In an effort to mitigate the problem of concentrating power of any sort in one set of hands, the Founders chose to take small pieces of each general power of government, and entrust it to a branch whose primary purpose was not the execution of that power.  This is perhaps best explained through the example of the veto power.  Making law is a legislative function, and as such is held by Congress.  The veto power puts the president, the chief officer of the executive power, in the law-making process, effectively rendering him a form of legislator.  While he cannot constitutionally perform other legislative functions, such as propose laws or control revenue flow, his vote is still an integral part of any law’s creation.  While just one example, the veto power illustrates how the Founder’s separation and redistribution of power work in practice.

Having considered the rationale of mixing government’s power, the question remains as to why this should prevent tyranny as the Founders intended.  The answer comes in revisiting the idea of concentrated power.  If tyranny grows out of too much power being in one place, two solutions seem likely.  First, one could take away an essential power of government, such as the ability to make law, therefore rendering the government all but useless.  Such a solution is akin to anarchy.  The other option, and the one chosen by the Founders, is to spread powers out so that any one entity would find it impossible to gain sole control over any aspect of government.  No matter how tyrannical the legislature’s intent, it cannot constitutionally remove the president’s role in the law-making process with his veto.  While certainly not foolproof, this system of dividing power provides an important constitutional check on the growth of governmental power.

While certainly not the most glamorous aspect of constitutional philosophy, the presidential veto power provides in miniature a view into the Founders’ hopes for governmental balance.  By separating power generally between three branches, and separating that power again through these exceptions, the Founders provided an institutional protection for the freedoms they hoped to preserve.

George Schrader is a student of political science and German at Hillsdale College.

Howdy from Texas. I thank Professor Baker for joining us today and for his wonderful essay! I also thank all of you who are joining us for our “90 in 90 = 180 History Holds the Key to the Future,” whether by reading or by blogging!

After reading Federalist Paper No. 47, I am awestruck by our Constitutional founding father’s tenacity and brilliant attention to detail. It is truly obvious that they loved their country. It is truly obvious that they loved their fellow countrymen. It is truly obvious that they knew their history and political theory. It is truly obvious that they had a reverence for the Republican form of government. It is truly obvious that they respected the “genius of the people.” (I just can’t say “genius of the people” enough times!) It is truly obvious that they feared, condemned, and yearned to triumph over tyranny. It is truly obvious they wanted the triumph to be pervasive and permanent.

Tyranny. This is an ugliness and cruelty that we have never, thanks to our Constitution, which has proven to uphold our Republican principles, had to experience. Yet, it was fresh in the hearts, minds and souls of our founding fathers and it was fresh in the spirits of the people.

The checks and balances have served us well. Tyranny has
yet to rear its ugly head, though, at times, the Constitution has been tested and continues to be tested.

After reading, Federalist Paper No. 47, I am more aware of the definitions of both the words, “checks” and “balances,” just as I am keenly becoming aware of the true meaning of “big government.”

“Checks” is obvious. The different branches must keep each other separate and accountable. “Balance” has a new meaning to me, however. The different branches must have a fluidity amongst each other. The branches must flow into the trunk to gather their nourishment from their roots.

The roots are the people and the roots need the rain. They reach across the ground in search for their nourishment. The nourishment is the knowledge, the information. Without the knowledge and information the people have no power and knowledge is power. Here is the most impressive aspect of early America, the representatives were not afraid to give the people the information. There was an honesty and transparency coupled with an intelligence and integrity.

This would answer the question of why our modern day representatives withhold so much of information, including what is in the bill and how they vote. The information is hardly transparent. But have the people demanded it? It is time we do.

I am struck by the intensity, desire and fervor with which the revolutionary citizens participated in the process. I am awed by the respect the representatives gave the citizens. They wrote 85 essays explaining a 7 page Constitution.

What do we get today?

Checks and balances are the delicate framework of our governmental structure. Yet, constituents should check their representative’s actions and balance the political process with the scales of participation and inquiries.

The republic stands on the balance beam of questions and answers for all.

God Bless,

Janine Turner

Friday, July 2nd, 2010


“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,

Cathy Gillespie

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

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.

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

Federalist #51 is the most important of the essays in The Federalist, after #10. It completes the discussion of the general structure of the Constitution before Publius turns to a consideration of its particular elements. It ties together the main points of the previous essays.

Federalist #47 and #48 outlines the challenge of keeping the departments of government within their proper bounds; then Federalist #49 and #50 considers and rejects the suggestion of occasional or regular appeals to the people for that purpose.  Federalist #51, therefore, begins with the question: “To what expedient then shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the constitution?”

Importantly, the answer is NOT a bill of rights! Rather, Publius writes, “[t]he only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied by so contriving the interior structure of government, as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” (emphasis added).

As elsewhere, the analysis of the problem and the solution rest on an understanding of human nature. Each department must have a “will of its own,” which requires having “the means and personal motives” to defend its powers. Why the emphasis on power rather than “the common good.”  Isn’t this just a cynical approach to government?  Publius explains that enlisting private interests to protect the public good is the only method actually of achieving the end of government, which is justice.

The “preservation of liberty” requires “that each department should have a will of its own and consequently should be so constituted, that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.” Rigorous adherence to this principle “would require that all the appointments for the supreme executive, legislative, and judiciary magistracies, should be drawn from the same found of authority, the people, through channels having no communication with one another.” (emphasis added). The federal judiciary, in particular, does not meet this test.  Publius says this deviation is justified because the mode of choosing judges ought to be the one best designed to produce the peculiar qualifications required of judges. He also presciently observes, as so many later presidents have learned to their dismay, that lifetime appointments for judges “must soon destroy all sense of dependence on the authority [i.,e., the President] conferring them.”

This passage reminds us that a republic, as defined in Federalist #39, “derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.” The judiciary, along with the President and the Senate (prior to the 17th Amendment’s substitution of popular election for election by state legislatures), draws its powers “indirectly” from the people because judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The judiciary and the President — who is actually elected not by the people, but by the Electoral College — are both somewhat removed from the people and in need of protection from the legislative branch.  Thus, if as to their salaries they were “not independent of the legislature in this particular, their independence in every other, would be merely nominal.”

What follows are some of the most insightful and widely quoted observations about the relationship between human nature and government.  With so much packed into one paragraph, each thought deserves to be separated out for separate consideration.

  •        “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others.:
  •        “The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack.”
  •        “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
  •         “The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
  •        “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”
  •         “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
  •         “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

The notion that, at its core, the Constitution is a structure to control the self-interested tendencies of both the people and those in government may be a new idea for many Americans.  To those who think that the citizenry and government require no restraint other than popular elections, Publius responds that “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” The Constitution reflects the “policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.”

Federalist #51 then reiterates and extends the argument of Federalist #47 and #48 concerning legislative dominance and the practical implementation of separation of powers. Besides strengthening the weaker branches, Federalist #51 makes clear the need to weaken the legislative branch. “The remedy for this inconveniency is, to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election, and different principles of action, as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on the society, will admit.” That explains the phenomenon that even when the same party controls both houses of Congress, the two bodies nevertheless do not cooperate very well.

It is often said in the media that the American people want the branches of the Federal government to work together.  The Constitution, however, guarantees conflict among the branches and between the federal and state governments in order to protect the liberty of the people.  Federalist #51 emphasizes the Constitution’s “double security” of separation of powers and federalism.

In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments.  Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people.  The different governments will control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.     Federalist #51 then ties the constitutional structure back to the fundamental argument of Federalist #10. For it is necessary “not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard the one part of society against the injustice of the other part.”  The way to avoid the “oppressions of factious majorities” is a federal system which encourages the multiplication of factions.  As a result, in the United States, “a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place upon any other principles, than those of justice and the general good.”  Thus, change is intended to be difficult as demonstrated by the fact that legislation cannot pass simply on the basis of “the majority” in Congress. A vote in the House of Representatives reflects one majority and a vote in the Senate represents a different majority. So, too, the President, who represents yet another majority, has the opportunity to sign or veto legislation.

The original Constitution operates on the basis of producing a legislative consensus through conflict and compromise.  This reflects the Framers’ view that structured conflict among the departments of government, rather than simple majorities, is more likely to produce a just consensus protective of minority interests. In such a system, there must be less pretext also, to provide for the security of the [the minor party], by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the [majority]; or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself.” (emphasis added).

This structure of “double-security” has been changed in important ways. The initial addition of the Bill of Rights did not actually change the structure, as Madison explained it would not do so when he introduced the amendments for adoption by the first Congress.  The Bill of Rights applied to the federal government, not to the states. The post-Civil War amendments did immediately change federalism by abolishing slavery and imposing important and just limits on the states. Nevertheless, federalism remained largely in tact as long as states continued to have a direct voice within the federal government by virtue of the election of U.S. senators by their state legislatures. See Federalist #62. The Seventeenth Amendment, however, changed that by requiring popular election of senators. Not that long thereafter, the Supreme Court became much more deferential to Congress and less so to the states.

One of the effects of the Senate no longer representing the residual sovereignty of the states, see Federalist #62, has been that the Court has had a relatively free hand – and indeed encouragement from some in Congress – to erode federalism. While there have been struggles among its members over federalism, the Court certainly has affected federalism through the manner in which, through the Fourteenth Amendment, it has applied the Bill of Rights to the states. In the course of doing so, the Supreme Court has arguably become “a will independent of the society itself” as it tends to prefer the minor party as against the states.  As a result of these constitutional amendments and judicial interpretations, the states no longer offer much security against the federal government.

For Publius, “the enlargement of the orbit” through federalism (see Federalist #9 and #10) made republicanism possible.  The Anti-Federalists, on the contrary, argued that such a large country was incompatible with a self-governing republic and would grow into imperialism. Despite “contrary opinions,” Publius concluded “that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practicable sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government.” As Publius predicted, self-government has flourished in the United States because “happily for the republican cause, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the federal principle.” Publius’s prediction, however, became a reality because predicated on the premise of the double-security of separation of powers and federalism.

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

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