What Is the Separation of Powers?

Ping pong balls divided across a line

The framers of the United States Constitution Founders had a major interest in preventing the abuse of power. As a result, the separation of powers would preserve the integrity of the federal government to ensure that no one branch of government had too much power.

The American Model of the Separation of Powers

The federal government has three branches: legislative, the executive and the judicial branch. The legislative branch, which includes the Senate and the House of Representatives, is established in Article I. The executive branch is established in Article II of the Constitution and is led by the President of the United States. The judicial branch, which is comprised of the Supreme Court and the federal court system, is established in Article III.

These three separate branches of government are endowed with certain powers. The legislative branch is responsible for creating laws and handling the budget of the federal government. The executive branch is responsible for implementing the public policy enacted by the legislative branch. Lastly, the judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the constitutionality of laws.

The branches work together, and it is unconstitutional for any branch to overstep its authority. For example, the executive branch cannot interpret the Constitution, the judicial branch cannot make laws and the legislative branch cannot enforce public policy. In this way, each branch “checks” the power of the other two. This concept of check and balances prevents any one part of the government from overstepping.

Historical Examples of the Separation of Powers

The American model of the separation of powers has worked well since the 18th century. However, it is certainly not the first time anybody had considered the concept concept. It actually dates back to ancient Greece. Aristotle believed that, while no one form of government was perfect, a balance could be achieved by blending components of democracy, monarchy and aristocracy.

Another major milestone for the concept of the separation of powers can be seen in James Harrington’s classic book, The Commonwealth of Oceana, published in 1656. Harrington was an English aristocrat who explored political theory and processes using a fictitious example of the nation, Oceana. Harrington’s imaginary Oceana prominently featured the separation of powers.

In 1690, John Locke published Civil Government, which explored the separation of powers through separate executive and legislative bodies. Adding to Locke’s work was Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748. Montesquieu explored the distribution of political power among three branches of government—the legislative, executive and judiciary. Montesquieu argued that the division of power into three branches is the only way to prevent abuses of authority in government.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.