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Why Three Branches of Government?

Updated on January 11, 2019

The Branches of Government

In 1787 our forefathers came together and wrote the constitution for the country. By doing so, our forefathers created a governing system that had in some ways, not existed. Having legislative, judicial, and executive branches, the U.S. government is divided into three branches. This was done for the sole purpose of checks and balances; in which, the branches have the power to check one another thus having a balance in power where one branch is not more powerful than the others (Patterson, 2008).

Democratic governments already were in existence, yet, our forefathers, wanted to create a government, unlike other democracies. The new U.S. government using the idea of constitutionalism and federalism would have given its people inalienable rights, where states could govern themselves to a certain point, yet the national government would still have the right to govern the states and nation.

Finally, the framers would divide powers--described as the principle of separated institutions sharing power by Richard Neustadt--among the three branches mentioned above. This was a different approach compared to other democracies around the world (Patterson, 2008). Therefore, the branches of government in the U.S. can be assumed to be the resilience of the U.S. government.

Reasons for Government Division

When the framers came together toward the development of the constitution, they wanted to establish a government where the liberties of its people would not be vulnerable. The framers would use the principles outlined by philosophers, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. Thomas Hobbes came up with the idea of social contract where individuals gave up certain right or freedoms in order for the protection of a single ruler of a state could offer.

Hobbes knew that the nature of life was rough and that the weak were picked on by the strong; therefore, people would need to give certain freedoms up and follow a ruler who could supply a safeguard. John Locke would later add that all individuals were entitled to his or her inalienable rights and that the individuals acquire social contracts to be governed in order to guard absolute rights.

Our forefathers believed in the work of Hobbes and Locke, believing that creating a government based on separation of powers and checks and balances was the only way these absolute rights could be provided and protected. Our forefathers then divided the government into the presidential, legislative, and judicial branches in order to prevent a single power from coming into rule.

Our forefathers had the idea to use separation of powers, proposed years earlier by the theorist, Baron de Montesquieu, so that no one single entity could come into power and ignore the liberties of the people. Separation of power would also provide check and balances where the branches of government may check one another's powers and equilibrium with their own (Patterson, 2008).

Among other influences on the framers choice to divide the government into three separate branches, was the Magna Carta and Mayflower Compact (Constitution of the United States of America, 2009). The Magna Carta was a charter drawn in 1215 that said the king could not rule above the law and if he were to, the people could appeal to the kings' rule (Magna Carta, 2009). The Mayflower Compact was the first governing document of the Plymouth Colony that gave the settlers the rights to self govern apart from the English King (Mayflower Compact, 2009).

Interaction of the Branches

The basis for the three branches of government in the U.S. is that the branches, legislative, judicial, and executive, would interact in a way that if one branch were to step outside the boundary set by the constitution the other branches would step in and pronounce the act unconstitutional (Patterson, 2008). So the intended interaction between the three branches is clearly understood, the system of checks and balances must be understood.

The authority designated for the legislative branch, Congress, would be shared with the other branches establishing a system of checks. The same would be said for the other two branches. Congress, of course, has the power to make and pass legislation. The judicial branch, Supreme court, can construe the laws passed by Congress that are disagreed upon and can announce laws unconstitutional. The executive branch, President, can also construe and find unconstitutional the laws passed in Congress. The President has the power to veto such laws.

The Supreme Court has judicial power within its courts. The President has the authority to appoint judges, interpret court decisions, and pardon people convicted in the courts. Congress, on the other hand, can determine the size of the Federal court structure. Congress can rewrite laws misinterpreted by the courts, impeach federal judges, and restrict appellate jurisdiction. Congress can try to establish amendments when it feels courts decisions are unconstitutional.

The Presidential branch has the power to employ high ranking officials and make treaties. Congress can override a presidential veto, impeach the president, and investigate the presidents' doings. Congress can decide if to pass laws and advocate money for presidential activities. The Supreme Court can state a presidential deed unconstitutional when done without legislation (Patterson, 2008). The above mentioned states the intended interaction between the three branches of government.

Is the system successful and are the branches balanced?

The governmental system of the U.S. can be said to be both successful and not successful. The U.S. is a superpower in the world today, but, at the same time, the economy today is taking hard hits as it did during the great depression in the 1930s (Higgs, 2009). One of the jobs of Congress was to secure a functional sound economy (Patterson, 2008). Is the recent economy crash the sign of an unsuccessful government system, or is it just part of the struggles of a young nation?

According to Weingast (2005), constitutions fail in democracies all around the world. This shows that indeed our system of government has been successful to a degree. Had the government not been made the way our forefathers had planned, the U.S. Constitution may have failed years ago. A constitution has to be self-governing in that it gives the will to political leaders to follow the provisions it provides (Weingast, 2005).

The U.S. Constitution provides provisions of the government system such as the division of government into three separate branches. Thus far that government has not denied U.S. citizens of liberty, property, and commerce maintaining the survival of the U.S. Constitution (Weingast, 2005). The above-mentioned shows that despite the economic hurdles the government system of the U.S. has been successful.

The branches of the government can be said to be balanced with the fact that the constitution has not failed (Weingast, 2005). The Watergate incident may be the only case where power may not have been balanced according to Yarwood (1993). Yarwood (1993) gives an example that balance has been kept within the three branches. He shows that through history, stating that Congress has never withheld or decreased funds necessary for operation for the coequal branches even during periods of controversy. The balance in power is yet to be displaced and further shows the success of the U.S. government.

Strong federal Government or States' Rights

Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government was weak and had no money or way of getting money through taxation. States under the Articles had more power than the national government. This is the reason our forefathers brought forth the idea of federalism, a division of sovereignty between a national government and regional government (Patterson, 2008).

Then, opponents to federalism feared that a strong national government would be created and the states would be shoved aside. Patrick Henry, a believer in state-centered government, was angered that the constitution stated, "We the people," instead of, "We the States." on the other hand, those who favored federalism realized that under the Articles of Confederation the government was developed by the states for the states and not by the people for the people (Patterson, 2008).

The framers in favor of strong federal government knew that the only way the nation could be, in fact, a nation, was through federalism. The goal was to not only create a people's government but also for the states. This conflict with the state's rights ultimately led to a governing system based on federalism in the constitution. This gave the state power on local issues and the national government power on national issues, where certain powers were to overlap.

Still, the champions of states' rights thought it was unnecessary for a strong federal government. Most believed that the states could better serve the people than the national government could. After the constitution was set as the governing body till the end of civil war, proponents of state-centered government fought against the national government most notably by rejecting national policy they felt endangered their state's interest. Some of these issues would be contested in the Supreme Court, such cases include McCulloch vs. Maryland and the Dred Scott Decision.

Nowadays, not so much conflict exists, and the states work more with the national government. As seen with welfare programs such as the Great Society, the national government has more power over policies that were once meant only for states. Devolution has also begun in that the national government has to pass down some of its power to the states (Patterson, 2008). So as opposed to when the framers were developing the constitution when there was a clear divide between favoring a strong national government and states' government, in modern times there seems to be a trend of favoring both sides with much less conflict.

Designed More Efficiently

For the time the constitution was drafted, not much could have been done differently to design the constitution more efficiently. If the forefathers could have seen into the future, then maybe things could have changed. The way in which the constitution was written has allowed each generation to revise and redefine its provisions (Patterson, 2008). The reason just stated may be what makes the design of the constitution efficient.

One Solution could be put this way--the founders wanted protection from the way European nations ruled, corruption, failure, and abuse of European Christendom. The founders wanted to fix the problems of present America. This may have distracted them. Had they not been distracted, maybe they could have focused more on certain provisions which could have led to more clarity in some provisions (Noll, 2007). However, by creating the three branches of government, our forefathers ensured the success that our country has elevated too.


Constitution of the United States of America. (2009). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from,

Higgs, R. (2009). A Revealing Window on the U.S. Economy in Depression and War: Hours Worked, 1929-1950. The independent Review, 14(1), 151-160. Retrieved from, ABI/INFORM Global database.

Magna Carta. (2009). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from,

Mayflower Compact. (2009). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from,

Noll, M. (2007). America's Two Foundings. First Things, (178), 29-34. Retrieved from, Research Library database.

Patterson, T. E. (2008). The American Democracy, Eightth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. Retrieved from University of Phoenix, HIS301

Weingast, B.R. (2005). The Constitutional Dilemma of Economic Liberty. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(3), 89. Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global database.

Yarwood, D. (1993). The Federalist Authors and the Problem of Equality between the Branches of Government: A Study in Institutional Development. Social Science Quarterly, 74(3), 645-663. Retrieved from EconLit with Full Text database.


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    • Tiffany Dian Payne Bph profile image

      Tiffany Payne 

      5 months ago from Dallas TX

      Great article many people do not understand the branches of government and therefore are confused how the system really works

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      that helped a lot

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Locke really favored a strong legislature having most of the power. His idea is closer to the English Parliamentary system in which the dominant party chooses the executive. Montesquieu changes Locke's approach. Locke never wanted equal branches which he thought would produce gridlock.

      You'd be hardpressed to argue that the US has never denied any rights to slaves.

    • TinaTango profile image


      8 years ago

      amazing article! very informative!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      great article


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