Jun 14, 2017
Show 1838 Part 5 of 10. Constitution 101. The Meaning and History of the Constitution.
This show was originally published as ACU Show 828 and is here republished.
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Welcome to Week 5
“The Separation of Powers: Ensuring Good Government”
The separation of powers helps to ensure good government at the same time it guards against tyranny. Independent in function but coordinated in the pursuit of justice, the three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—must each have enough power to resist the encroachment of the others, and yet not so much that the liberty of the people is lost.
A political regime has three dimensions: the ruling institutions, the rulers, and the way of life of the people. In America, the rulers—the people themselves—and their ruling institutions—staffed by the people’s representatives—aim at securing the Creator-endowed natural rights of all citizens. The Framers did this in two ways. “Vertically” considered, our ruling institutions are defined by federalism, or the division of power between the national, state, and local governments. “Horizontally” considered, the ruling institutions of the federal government itself are separated and co-equal.
In the American regime, the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land.” No one branch is superior to it; all three branches have a duty to abide by it. While each of the three branches plays a unique role in the passage, execution, and interpretation of laws, all of the branches must work together in the governing process.
The legislative branch is closest to the people. It is also the branch in which the danger of majority tyranny lurks. The passions of the people are reflected most in the House of Representatives, where the members are elected for terms of two years. The Senate, with its six year terms, was designed to be a more stable legislative presence than the House.
The defining characteristic of the executive is “energy.” The president can act swiftly and decisively to deal with foreign threats and to enforce the law, and can also provide a check on legislative tyranny through the veto.
Members of the judiciary, the third branch of government, must exercise judgment in particular cases to secure individual rights. Through “judicial review,” the judiciary is given the authority to strike down laws that are contrary to the Constitution. But judicial review is not judicial supremacy; even the Supreme Court must rely upon the other branches once it has rendered judgment.
The checks that each branch can exercise against the encroachment of the others ultimately protect the liberties of the people. The separation of powers promotes justice and good government by having each branch perform its proper function. This institutional design allows the sovereign people to observe and to know which branch is responsible for which actions in order to hold each to account. The sense of mutual responsibility built into the separation of powers is a reflection of the moral and civic responsibility all Americans share.
About the Lecturer:
Will Morrisey is the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution and Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College, where he has taught since 2000. He teaches courses in American politics, political philosophy, and comparative politics.
Dr. Morrisey is the author of eight books on statesmanship and political philosophy including Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War; The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government; Regime Change: What It Is, Why It Matters; Culture in the Commercial Republic; and Reflections on DeGaulle. He is currently working on a study of the geopolitical strategies of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Times, the American Political Science Review, the Claremont Review of Politics, and Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, of which he has served as an editor since 1979. He received his B.A., summa cum laude, from Kenyon College, and his Ph.D. in political science at the New School University.
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Related ACU Shows-
Show 821 Part 1 and 2 of 5. Introduction to the Constitution Lecture Series
Show 822 Part 3 and 4 of 5. Introduction to the Constitution Lecture Series
Show 823 Part 5 of 5. Introduction to the Constitution Lecture Series
Related Hillsdale Course- Constitution 201
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