- Students will be able to define the following constitutional principles: republican government, federalism, separation of powers and checks and balances.
- Students will be able to identify how these principles were originally understood in the constitutional ratification debate.
- Students will be able to analyze how the principles operate in the Constitution.
- Handout A: Background Essay – The Battle for Balance
- Handout B: Student Reading Guide
- Handout C: Problem Solving Chart – Articles of Confederation
- Handout D: The United States Constitution
- Handout E: Student Note Guide – Separation of Powers
- Handout F: Class Notes
- Handout G: Checks and Balances
- Handout H: Excerpts of Federalist No. 51
- Handout I: Excerpts of Federalist No. 57
- Separation of powers
- Checks and balances
Have students read Handout A: Background Essay—The Battle for Balance, answer the critical thinking questions, and complete Handout B: Student Reading Guide.
- Students will complete Handout C: Problem Solving Chart—Articles of Confederation with a partner.
- Have the students work together to create an appropriate list of problems and possible solutions on the board. This will be a review activity.
- Use the list as evidence to justify the necessity of the Constitutional Convention and this discussion will be the launch into the main activity.
Task One: Separation of Powers » 25 minutes
- Divide into groups of three. Assign each student one of the three branches of government: legislative, executive, or judicial.
- Have each student research where their branch is located on Handout D: The United States Constitution and identify what powers are vested to their branch by the Constitution and fill in their appropriate columns on Handout E: Student Note Guide—Separation of Powers.
- After the students finish their portion of the chart have them share their answers with the other two students in their group. Repeat until all three students have shared their information and the chart is completed.
- When all the groups have completed their chart, recreate the chart as a visual on the board and have the students guide you in completing it.
- Read the quote from Federalist No. 47 to the class. Then have students rewrite the quote in their own words on Handout E: Student Note Guide—Separation of Powers. Have the students identify Madison’s point of view on Handout E.
- Lead a classroom discussion about the main ideas of Federalist No. 47 and Madison’s point of view with the class to introduce the idea of separation of powers.
Task Two: Checks and Balances » 20 minutes
- Write on the board: “How do you prevent tyranny under the new Constitution? Ask students what they think and record their answers on the board.
- Present the answer: “Checks and Balances” after discussing student answers.
- Lead the students as they complete Handout F: Class Notes by discussing the definition of checks and balances. Have them use Handout D: The United States Constitution to determine ways in which each branch checks and balances the other branches.
- Have students complete an “exit ticket” by answering this question: “How might one branch try to get around the system of checks and balances and overpower the other two branches?”
- Have the students write down their answers on an index card and use that card as their exit ticket out of the class.
- Have students complete Handout G: Checks and Balances as homework.
Constitutional Principles: Separation of Powers
Do you understand why separation of powers is important for protecting our freedom? This short, engaging video focuses on the constitutional principle of separation of powers. Clear definitions and graphics, an engaging historical narrative, brief scholar interviews, and memorable quotes will make this 6-minute video perfect for use any time of the year!
Separation of Powers with Checks and Balances
The Founders understood the principle expressed by the British historian, Lord Acton, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Through the complex system of checks and balances developed in the U.S. Constitution, they sought to assure that no person or branch of government could exercise unrestrained power. As James Madison advocated in Federalist No. 51, ambition should counteract ambition in a fashion that advances the public good.
Checks and Balances in Times of Crisis
James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The executive and legislature were designed to battle each other for power, but what does this look like in practice? The federal government is currently shut down as President Trump and Democrats in Congress have been unable to agree on a budget to pass. Specifically, the two sides have so far refused to compromise on the issue of constructing a wall along the southern border.
War and Constitutional Separation of Powers
The U.S. Constitution divides war powers between the president and Congress. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were focused on creating a government powerful enough to protect liberty, but not so powerful that it would threaten liberty. They worked carefully to craft the war powers of the new government, knowing that history was full of examples of war, so that war powers were necessary, but also of rulers who had abused the power and endangered liberty in order to make war.
International Relations and the Constitutional Separation of Powers
In 1787 the Constitution granted significant new powers to the central government, including those traditionally held by sovereign nations. In response to Anti-Federalist concerns about a too-powerful central government, James Madison explained that the new system of government was designed to work with human nature.