Seperation of Powers

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

The doctrine of separation of powers, which is one of the fundamental principles of the U.S. federal system of government, is generally credited to the French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, whose The Spirit of the Laws (1748; Eng. trans., 1750) was highly regarded by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Montesquieu's basic contention was that those entrusted with power tend to abuse it; therefore, if governmental power is fragmented, each power will operate as a check on the others. In its usual operational form, one branch of government (the legislative) is entrusted with making laws, a second (the executive) with executing them, and a third (the judiciary) with resolving disputes in accordance with the law.

As a further protection, the personnel of each branch are selected by different constituencies and procedures for different terms of office. The separation of powers principle contrasts with British-style parliamentary government, where almost all political power rests with the legislative branch. The principle of judicial review is an important part of the checks and balances of the American system, although other governments with separated powers do not include it. One criticism of separated powers is that it can also result in weak government, especially if the legislative and executive branches are controlled by different political parties.

Martin Torodash

Bibliography: Fischer, L., Constitutional Conflicts between Congress and the President, 3d ed. (1991); Gwyn, W. B., The Meaning of the Separation of Powers (1965); Knight, B. B., ed., Separation of Powers in the American Political System (1989); Saye, A. B., and Allums, J. F., Principles of American Government, 11th ed. (1990).

  • Subjects:
    The Presidency
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