2-14: Separation of Powers

Most U.S. citizens, it seems, need a refresher course in civics whenever our vaunted peaceful transfer of power occurs. The current ultra-partisanship that permeates the land and polarizes—not quite paralyzes—us is really nothing new. Heck, when George Washington was president, he had Federalist Alexander Hamilton barking in one ear while Republican Thomas Jefferson yelped in the other. When the bickering ebbed, however, all agreed that the Constitution reigned supreme. And it has ever been so.

The website


provides a useful summation, authored by Robert Longley, of the respective roles of the three branches of our government.

A System of Checks and Balances

The framers of the U.S. Constitution built a system of “separation of powers” through “checks and balances” into the document to ensure that no single person or branch of the new government could ever become too powerful.

Men like James Madison knew all too well from hard experience the dangers of things like despotic kings. Or as Madison himself put it, “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”

Madison and his fellow framers believed that in creating any government administered by humans over humans, “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

Three Branches, Separate But Equal

In the provision of the three branches of governmental power legislative, executive, and judicial—into the Constitution, the framers built their vision of a stable federal government as assured by a system of separation of powers with checks and balances.

Madison wrote … “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judicial 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.”

Checks and Balances in the U.S. Government

In both theory and practice, the power of each branch of American government is held in check by the powers of the other two in several ways. For example, while the President of the United States (executive branch) can veto laws passed by Congress (legislative branch), Congress can override presidential vetoes with a two-thirds vote of both houses.

Similarly, the Supreme Court (judicial branch) can nullify laws passed by Congress by ruling them to be unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court’s power is balanced by the fact that its presiding judges must be appointed by the president with the approval of the Senate.

But Are the Branches Truly Equal?

Some people argue that there are more checks or limitations on the power of the legislative branch than over the other two branches. For example, both the executive and judicial branches can override or nullify the laws it passes. While they are basically correct, it is how the Founding Fathers intended.

Our system of separation of powers through checks and balances reflects the Founders’ interpretation of a republican form of government in which the legislative or lawmaking branch, as the most powerful branch, must also be the most restrained. The Founders believed this because the Constitution grants “We the People” the power to govern ourselves through the very laws we demand of the representatives we elect to the legislative branch.

Fallible But Durable

The authors of the Constitution ignored the peculiar institution of slavery. Although an expedient omission at the time, that was a huge mistake. Nonetheless, the document has only been amended 27 times. It has withstood the ravages of time and remains the centerpiece of our “nation of laws.”

Members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government, We the People are watching you.


[I write about politics in this blog because of the direct link I see between the words and actions of politicians and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. America’s political class manipulates our military as though they were pawns in a global game of chess. To them, PTSD is merely an unfortunate cost of war.]

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