As we have already seen our
Constitution is very much a reaction to the events that came before
it. Our founding fathers had several goals, foremost among those
goals was to avoid tyranny. In order to do this several different
systems were set up to prevent the abuse of power. Federalism was one
of these systems. Federalism was designed to balance the power of the
national and State governments and thus limit the powers of the
national government. Jefferson and others were convinced that state
government was closer to the people and thus more democratic.
Another system that was developed was the system of checks and
balances. Checks and balances, or the separation of powers, is based
upon the philosophy of Baron de Montesquieau. In this system the
government was to be divided into three branches of government, each
branch having particular powers.
Makes the laws
Enforces and carries out the laws.
Interprets the laws
Not only does each branch of the government have particular
powers each branch has certain powers over the other branchs. This is
done to keep them balanced and to prevent one branch form ever
gaining too much power. For example:
Congress may pass laws........but the President can
The President can veto laws.......but Congress can override the
veto with a 2/3 vote.
The President and Congreess may agree on a law..........but the
Supreme Court can declare a law unconsitutional.
The President can appoint Judges and other government
officials.......but Senate must approve them.
Supreme Court judges have life terms.......but they can be
As you can see there are many ways (there are many more than
listed) that the Constitution balances power. Real life conflicts
that test the system have occured throughout history. These checks
and balances are used on a regular basis.
- After the Civil War President Andrew Johnson vetoed over 20
- After the Civil War Congress overrode overrode over 20
- In1987 President Ronald Reagan appointed Judge Robert Bork to
the Supreme Court, his nomination was defeated.
- In 1935 and 1936 the Supreme Court declared the NIRA and then
the AAA (two New Deal programs passed during the Roosevelt
- In 1918 Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, a
peace treaty ending World War I that President Wilson had worked
very hard on.
There are thousands of examples of checks and balances at work. As
we continue this year we will examine these and many more.
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