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United States Constitution | Study Guide

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United States Constitution | Main Ideas


Separation of Powers

Central to the Constitution is the concept of "separation of powers." The framers hoped to create a system wherein one particular part of the government couldn't gain too much power or control over another or over the American people. Fresh from gaining independence from Britain, most of the framers wanted to make sure their new government in no way resembled the one left behind in England. They wanted no person to have any power out of balance with the rest of the system. Therefore, they split the government into three branches: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. This separation of powers is established in the first three articles of the Constitution. No branch should be able to have too much power over another, so they can all keep one another in check.

Checks and Balances

Checks and balances are part of the system of the separation of powers. Once the separate parts of the government were established, the framers were concerned about how they would keep those three branches functioning on an equal level. They instituted a system of checks and balances so each branch had the power to "check" the others. For example, the president, part of the executive branch, may veto a bill, but Congress, the legislative branch, can overrule the veto with a majority vote. The Supreme Court, part of the judicial branch, can pass a ruling striking down a law passed by Congress if that law is deemed unconstitutional. The framers envisioned that this system, which gives each branch powers over the other but never more power than another, would keep any part of the government from taking more power than it should.

Power to the People

After the end of the American Revolution and the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence, most people wanted to create a government that would be answerable to its people, instead of instituting a monarch or a primary politician. The separation of powers, the checks and balances on each branch of government, and the electoral system were all created with the idea that citizens should have a say in their governance. The Constitution purposefully limits the government and spreads power not only over the three branches but also between a federal government and smaller state governments. Creating state governments was another way to hold the federal government in check and to try to give more power to the citizens of each state.

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