What are the principles and the significance in of checks and balances in shaping American Government?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The concept of checks and balances among branches of the federal government was at the heart of much of what the authors of the Constitution of the United States were attempting in drafting that essential document.  Those principle authors, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, with intellectual contributions by others, most importantly, Thomas Jefferson, were rebelling against the tyranny of the British Crown. They sought to create a wholly new governing structure that would preclude, they hoped, the emergence within the country they were establishing of an autocracy that replaced one dictatorship with another.  Towards that end, these learned individuals made their highest immediate priority the establishment of separate branches that, individually, could do little to subvert the democratic system they were creating but, collectively, would provide the basis of a secure representative form of democracy.  Consequently, the first three articles of the Constitution established the three branches of the federal government and specified the responsibilities of each.  This was not to be a pure democracy in the sense of each citizen of the United States voting on each issue or piece of legislation; rather, it was to be republic in which those citizens elected individuals of high moral character to represent them .  As such, the first article, Article I, established the legislative branch, the Congress, which would be comprised of two chambers, a House of Representatives and a Senate, with different terms of service (two-year terms for members of the House; six-year terms for members of the Senate) and offsetting responsibilities and authorities, thereby ensuring that the system of checks and balances integral to the entire enterprise would be replicated within the legislature.  The House can do nothing without the Senate, and the Senate, similarly, can pass no laws without the concurrence of the House. 

Article II of the Constitution established the executive branch of government, with the powers of such “vested in a President of the United States of America.”  The president would serve four year terms and would be the nation’s principle instrument for the conduct of foreign relations, albeit with the “advise and consent” of the Senate.  Article III, of course, established the judicial branch, the powers of which would be “vested in one supreme Court.”  Each of these three articles spelled-out the authorities of each branch of government, with the legislative branch vested with authorities over levying taxes, regulating commerce with foreign nations and between states, as well as with Native tribes, and so on. 

The principle of checks and balances, then, was of the utmost importance to the Framers of the Constitution.  These individuals feared the consolidation of power in any one of the three branches, especially the executive branch.  A system in which the federal government was divided among separate branches would be, they argued, the best guarantee against dictatorship.  In articulating this rationale, Hamilton, in Federalist Paper #9 (“The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”), wrote the following:

“The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellencies of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided.”

Similarly, in Federalist Paper #51 ("The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments"), Madison wrote that

“In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.”

In conclusion, the principle of checks and balances was a cornerstone of the republic these men were establishing in direct response not only to their concerns about the emergence of a dictatorship, but to their concerns about the corrosive influence of factions and autocratic temperaments on the parts of those who would preserve the character if not the title of the monarchy.  That the freedoms and principles Americans justly hold dear are represented in the Bill of Rights (i.e., the first ten amendments to the Constitution) and not the original document ratified as the U.S. Constitution reflected the overwhelming emphasis they placed on the principle of checks and balances.