Civic Literacy Curriculum
Question 15: There are three branches of government: why?
Q15: There are three branches of government: why?
A. Because it makes government work faster and more efficiently
B. Because separation of powers prevents any one part from becoming too powerful
C. Because it makes it so that the president has more help
D. All of the above
The Constitution uses multiple techniques to guarantee liberty.
First, federalism divides power between the state and federal governments, limiting the federal government only to powers specified in its text. Second, the Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances divide governance among the federal branches to keep any individual branch from wielding too much power. Third, constitutional rights, especially in the Bill of Rights, 14th Amendment, and Article 1, Sections 9 and 10, carve out key individual liberties out key individual liberties that government cannot infringe. (Plus, in addition to these all parts of the government are directly or indirectly accountable to the people, so that the people are capable of holding them responsible if they abuse their power.)
The French philosopher Montesquieu is perhaps best known for his theory on the separation of powers. In his work, The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, he wrote about the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and how they should be separate -- but how they should also depend on each other. The result would be a system where no single branch could overpower the other two.
This was not wholly original, however. Montesquieu was influenced by John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. He expanded upon Locke’s ideas, discussing the importance of the separation of powers.
Their theories were not just about the three branches. They were part of a larger discussion, about humankind possessing basic, natural rights and needing a government that will protect those rights. The relationship between the people and the government is, in essence, a social compact, or an agreement. Protecting those rights required carefully structuring government. In addition to its guarantees of federalism and civil liberties, the American Constitution uses the separation of powers and checks and balances as one of its primary tools to ensure the government does not become sufficiently powerful to threaten rights.
The separation of powers is designed so that no branch of government will become too powerful or exercise the powers of another branch. For example, the executive cannot make laws, only Congress. Checks and balances empower each branch to prevent the other branches from exceeding their constitutional authority. For example, the President can veto a law proposed by Congress.
This activity will help students better understand the process of checks and balances -- which prevents each branch of government from becoming too powerful -- by asking the students to not only define the processes but to also provide examples.
- Provide a copy of Checks and Balances to each group/student.
- Provide a copy of the graphic organizer to each group/student.
- If the students are unfamiliar with the three branches, these handouts, which come from Question 16’s activity, may be of use:
- Executive Branch
- Legislative Branch
- Judicial Branch
- A rubric is available if this is a graded activity.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes a rubric.
- Divide the class into groups of 2-3 based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group who have mastered the material and are prepared to extend their knowledge. Ideally, each group of 3 should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C.
- If students are in pairs rather than groups, divide them based on ability as well, pairing those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C). b. This activity works equally well on the individual level.
- Instruct the students to begin by reading the handout provided. Suggest that they annotate the document as needed.
- Once they complete the reading, they should work on the graphic organizer. a. If students are working individually, but appear to be struggling with the examples/non-examples, encourage them to talk to their peers and brainstorm.
- Circulate throughout the room as the students complete the worksheets to check for understanding.
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
- The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
- The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events, and historical events. As your class progresses through American history, feel free to return to this question as a review exercise or a summative long-form question at the end of the term.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), echoing Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, holds that “All men are born equally free and independent and have certain inherent natural rights” chiefly life, liberty, and property, and it is the responsibility of the government to protect those rights. The trick, however, was making sure that the government would indeed protect those rights and not turn into another monarchy.
Understanding how each branch keeps the other two from becoming too powerful can be seen if we talk about the roles that each branch plays in governing. What tasks do each branch have and how do those tasks relate to the other branches and their roles?
How does having three branches, each with the power to check the other two, actually protect the rights of the people? Use real-life examples in your answer.