“If men were angels, no 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 government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” – James Madison, Federalist No. 51
This eloquent quote by Madison hits at the heart of the Constitution. The central theme here is the idea of checks and balances or the separation of powers. This crucial component of the Constitution is displayed daily for America to witness. A recent example of this in action would be COVID-19 relief and the ensuing struggle America has observed.
Madison said: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
The Framers of the Constitution understood tyranny and what it meant to be under British oppression. The construct of the separation of powers was designed to thwart despotism.
Often, we look at 18th century America through 21st-century lenses. America, in its historical context, was incredibly progressive and continued to move in a progressive trajectory. If we judge the past by current standards, then everyone and every institution would be considered horrific.
The Framers of the Constitution realized it was impossible to obtain all the reforms they wished and still form a nation; however, what they did manage was a tremendous step forward. The doctrine of the separation of powers was put in place so that no one institution can become tyrannical.
The separation of powers balances factions one against the other to prevent overarching power from becoming concentrated. Its construction diffuses power between the branches, within the legislative branch, and between Federal and State governments, acting as a check on unbridled ambitions. It is a safeguard to preserve our constitutional republic.
Michael Deel currently attends Johns Hopkins University in their MA program in government. He lives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and you can reach him on Twitter @MDeel2022 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org