Separation of Powers

The separation of powers is a concept for governance, of which the Federalists were strong proponents. As the name suggests, the combined power of a governing body is divided among multiple branches in order to promote efficiency and restrain any one person or group from wielding too much political power. The French philosopher Montesquieu (pictured right1) coined the tripartite variation of this idea, in which power is distributed among three branches: the legislative, which makes the laws; the executive, which enforces the laws; and the judicial, which interprets the laws.2

Separation of powers allows each branch to focus its attention on a specific area of governing, and theoretically makes the system more efficient. In this sense, separation of powers is the political equivalent to a division of laborthe separation of a work process into a number of tasks, with each task performed by a separate person or group of persons..3 Additionally, the roles and functions of each branch are much clearer in this system than in a system where the powers of different governing bodies overlap.

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Checks and Balances

Montesquieu distrusted power in the hands of the few. He thought that power corrupted men.4 In order to make sure that no branch became too powerful and began usurping the power of other branches, Montesquieu proposed checks and balances, a complimentary concept to the separation of powers. In a system of checks and balances, branches are given powers to restrict the actions of other branches.5

For example, according to the Constitution, the president has the power to veto a bill passed by the legislature. The judiciary can declare presidential acts to be unconstitutional. The legislature can impeach judges of the judiciary. These are just some of the constitutional checks that the branches have on each other. In this way all three branches have powers that limit the other branches from gaining too much influence.6


Appeal to Federalists

Montesquieu's writings heavily influenced the thinking of prominent federalists, like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Montesquieu argued that to avoid tyrannical rule there must exist an equal and opposing force to each branch.7 This language appealed to the federalists, who were very insistent about avoiding comparisons between there new central government and the English monarchy. In fact, in Federalist 51, James Madison makes his famous statement that, "ambition must be made to counteract ambition." Along with Montesquieu, the federalists saw the separation of power and a system of checks and balances as two interconnected ways in which the new nation would fight off any attempts at tyranny.

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