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Principles of American government: lesson overview

A high-level overview of the principles behind the American governmental system, including separation of powers and checks and balances.
The US Constitution creates a complex, competitive policymaking process in order to ensure that the people’s will is represented and that freedom is preserved. It does this through separating powers among the three branches of government and between the federal government and state governments, as well as making sure that no one part of government can get too powerful through checks and balances in the policymaking process.

Key terms

access pointA point in the policymaking process where ordinary citizens can influence government.
checks and balancesAspects of the Constitution that require each branch of the federal government to gain the consent of the other two in order to act.
factionAn interest group seeking to influence government for the benefit of its members. The Framers sought to prevent any one faction from gaining too much power.
majorityThe largest group that shares an opinion on any one issue, for example, whether to declare war or support a tax.
minorityA smaller group with a differing opinion on any one issue. The Framers sought to keep majority opinions from trampling minority opinions.
impeachmentThe bringing of formal charges against a government officer for alleged crimes or abuses of power.
removalRemoving a government officer from office after impeachment proceedings resulted in a conviction.
separation of powersAspects of the Constitution that ascribe different elements of power to different branches of the government, which act independently. This keeps one branch of government from controlling the others.
stakeholderA person with an interest or a concern in a political issue.

Important documents

Federalist No. 51 — An essay written by James Madison (under the pseudonym Publius) that explains how the structure of the new government under the Constitution will provide the necessary checks and balances to keep any part of the government from becoming too powerful.
Advertisement for the Federalist Papers. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Madison argues that because people are naturally self-interested, separating the powers of government into distinct and independent branches will require them to compete with one another in order to govern, therefore limiting the power of the government as a whole.
Quote to know:
“What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. 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.”

Key takeaways

Complex policymaking processes: The structure of US government established in the Constitution purposely makes policymaking complicated, requiring various branches, institutions, and individuals to work together to accomplish goals.
The Constitution also provides solutions for indicting (impeaching), and if necessary removing, individuals who commit crimes or abuse their powers in office. These measures help to ensure that the people’s will is represented by permitting many people to influence the policymaking process, as well as preserving freedom by limiting the power of government.

Review questions

Describe the concept of ‘checks and balances’ in your own words. Why are checks and balances important to the US government system?
Describe ‘separation of powers’ in your own words. Why is separating powers among the branches of government important?
What is James Madison’s argument in Federalist No. 51? How did his ideas, as expressed in Federalist No. 51, influence the structure of US government?
What’s the difference between impeachment and removal?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user arielmiramontez5
    how did multiple access points support the idea of a large republic and strong national government?
    (6 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Hypernova Solaris
      That is a complicated question, but a very good one! I think that by providing multiple "access points" to American citizens for the federal government, the federal government could safely grow "within reason." In other words, the government could grow but it could also be watched very closely by the American people. That way, if the government grew in a way the people do not like, then they can call it out and destroy it. It is a bit paradoxical, but the government has gotten stronger under the watchful eye of the American people!
      (12 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user AndrewWei10000
    1. The checks and balances give one branch of government over another branch of government.
    2. Separation of powers mean that the power of the government should be split between multiple groups, to prevent one group from getting a monopoly over the government.
    3. James Madison's argument in Federalist No. 51 is supportive of the structure of the US government. It encouraged the US government to keep and improve their current structure.
    4. Impeachment means the trial of a government entity, while removal means the dismissal of a government entity.
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user