Explain the principle of the separation of powers found in the US Constitution. The separation of powers is the main underlying principle of the US Constitution whereby political power is distributed amongst the three branches of government – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The branches act both independently and interdependently. The idea was originally of French political thinker Baron de Montesquieu, it was then incorporated by the Founding Fathers into the 1787 codified document.
The principle was adopted by the Founding Fathers due to their fear of totalitarianism. Montesquieu argued for separation of powers in his book L’Esprit de Lois, where he stated that separation of powers will avoid tyranny ‘When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person…there can be no liberty. ’ On the contrary to the US, the UK’s powers are fused; the Prime Minister is both the executive and part of the legislature. In the US system there is also a separation of personnel, this means that no person can be a member of more than one branch at the same time.
When Senator Al Gore was elected vice-president in 1992, he had to resign from the Senate. Similarly, in 2008, Barack Obama too had to resign from the Senate. In this sense, the three branches are fully disconnected. The term ‘separation of powers’ can in fact be deceptive. As the institutions are separate and not the powers. Richard Neustadt, an American political scientist specialising in the United States presidency, cleared up this perplexity in 1960.
He wrote ‘The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is supposed to have created a government of ‘separated powers’. It did nothing of the sort. Rather, it created a government of separated institutions sharing powers. ’ Therefore, this doctrine is best thought as one of ‘shared powers’ where the powers are shared through a series of checks and balances. This separation of power is entrenched in the first three articles of the Constitution, Article I, section one, and states that ‘all legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.
While Article II, section one, certifies that ‘the executive Power shall be vested in a President’ and lastly Article III, section one, confirms that ‘the judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court. ’ Due to the nature of an entrenched and codified constitution these statements will be very difficult to change and for the reason of the Founding Fathers ideals of limited government, it is almost certain that this principle will never be threatened.
The principle of separation of powers is important because it is seen as the cornerstone of the American political system. History has shown that unlimited power in the hands of one person or group in many cases means that others are suppressed or their powers curtailed. The separation of powers in a democracy is to thwart abuse of power and to preserve freedom for all. The separation of powers enables the system of checks and balances. The branches are independent yet co-equal and the Founding Fathers believed that each should check the powers of the others.
The system of Checks and Balances is one in which each branch exercises control over the actions of other branches of government. This system allows the principle of limited government to prevail. The brilliance of the division of power within the federal government is that each branch has been given just enough power to make a difference, but not so much power as to be allowed to successfully give into the temptation of tyranny. This is what the Founding Fathers utmost desired and their system has yet to fail.