Exploring Federalist 51: Separation of Powers
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Exploring Federalist 51: Separation of Powers


What kind of government best preserves the
rights of the governed? This question was at the core of debates at
the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Our Founding Fathers feared one thing above
all others: tyranny, or the concentration of power. In Federalist 51, James Madison explores the
challenges of setting up a structure of government to prevent tyranny: “In framing a government
which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must
first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it
to control itself.” Our Founding Fathers created a democratic
republic, giving ordinary citizens a say in who is in power. They preserved much of the power of the state
governments that existed in the early republic. But they also gave the federal government
a larger role than in the Articles of Confederation. To safeguard freedom, they divided the powers
of government among distinct bodies. At the federal level, the government has three
branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Different parts of government that each had
enough power to counteract other parts – creating checks and balances. The Founders took the insight of checks and
balances from the French political philosopher Montesquieu. For Montesquieu, each distinct branch of government
restrains the others, preventing despotism. No one part can easily gain excessive power. Our Founding Fathers drew upon that insight
– and designed a system of government that prevented the concentration of power in one
branch. Our Founding Fathers believed that dividing
power was vital to preserve liberty, protect rights, and ultimately to prevent tyranny. In the words of Madison, “The accumulation
of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one,
a few, or many, … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Of course, the greatest check to tyranny is
being answerable to the people directly. Congress was envisioned as the most in-tune
to everyday Americans, accountable to the states and to individual voters from their
districts. That’s why the Framers of the Constitution
gave the most responsibilities to the legislative branch. That’s why they started with Article I:
the structure and powers of Congress. What powers does the Constitution give to
Congress? Has the scope of those powers changed? How successful was the Founders’ project?

6 Comments

  • Shane Willbur

    Any system that allows gridlock is totally inefficient. House of reps, or Senate. Choose one..not both.

    Also, the rest of the developed nations have already moved on to a Parliamentary System, rather than a presidential one. I would prefer to vote for a roster of people from a bigger choice of parties, rather than voting for one person who has the power to bring in anyone he/she chooses. In a parliament, the leader of the party can be called back if they no longer represent the will of the party. In the USA there is no accountability, the blame can be passed indefinitely. 2 parties is almost worse than having just one.

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