In this lesson, students will demonstrate an understanding of how the Constitution limits the powers of government through separation of powers and checks and balances.
Learning Goals/Benchmark Clarifications
Students will explain the concept of limited government as set forth in the U.S. Constitution.
Students will describe and distinguish between the concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances.
Students will analyze how government power is limited by separation of powers and/or checks and balances.
Students will be able to recognize examples of separation of powers and checks and balances.
Benchmark Content Limits
Civics EOC Reporting Category
Reporting Category 1 – Origins and Purposes of Law and Government
Suggested Time Frame
Three 45-50 minute class periods
Civics Content Vocabulary
checks and balances, constitutional government, judicial review, limited government, Marbury v. Madison, separation of powers
Inquiry with primary sources
Close reading of complex text
Computer to project websites and activity sheets
Highlighters, two different colors per student
Student activity sheets:
Separation of Powers What’s for Lunch? Simulation Activity Pages 1-4, Introduction to Roles handout, Post-Simulation Activity from iCivics: http://www.icivics.org/teachers/lesson-plans/separation-powers-whats-lunch
1. Limited government and natural rights The founding fathers were deeply concerned about government abusing its power. It was reasoned that when a government abused its power, it deprived the citizens of their liberty. As liberty was a fundamental God given right, assurances had to be put in place to protect the people from government abusing its power.
The founding fathers consulted the works of many political philosophers, including John Locke (1632-1704), when they developed government structures that protected the people from government abusing its powers. According to Locke, men lived in a “state of nature” which meant that one is allowed to conduct one’s life as one best sees fit, free from the interference of others. There is no government in a state of nature, and people are assumed to be equally responsible for protecting each others’ “life, health, liberty and possessions”. The laws by which people lived were derived from God, and these laws included the notion that people were forbidden from harming one another. Thus, the state of nature is a state of liberty where persons are free to pursue their own interests provided that in doing so they do not harm one another.
Still, it is not uncommon for property disputes to arise. Under the state of nature there is no government to appeal one’s grievances against one person who has stolen property or liberty (i.e. making a person a slave). Under the law of nature, men are allowed to defend their lives and their property, which include the right to kill others who threaten their property or liberty. This meant that there was no civil authority to settle disputes, and put the community at risk for an outbreak of war due to the lack of a civil government.
According to Locke, civil governments were established for the sake of protecting property. Property is the basis for Locke’s argument for both a social contract and civil government because it is the protection of that property (property protection extends to a person so that one has dominion over their own bodies) that compels men to choose a civil government and abandon the notion of living in a state of nature. The social contract is a voluntary agreement between the people and the government.
These ideas show that people are born with God given (natural) rights that are protected by civil governments. Governments are created to protect that which belongs to the people. However, governments are limited in their regulation of human behavior to the extent to which the people themselves believe does not infringe on their God given freedoms. The people enter into a social contract voluntarily provided that the government is formed in a way that respects natural rights and is derived from the consent of the governed.
2. Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances
The U.S. Constitution is organized around a separation of powers system that utilizes checks and balances. The powers to legislate, enforce and adjudicate are separated into three different branches of government. These branches may not function with complete independence. The founding fathers feared that branches functioning independently might still abuse their power. Thus, while there are separate branches of government and each is vested with specific powers, this does not mean that each branch operates without some level of oversight from one or both other branches.
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu’s (1689-1755) 1748 work, The Spirit of the Laws (French: L’Esprit des Lois), on the theory of separation of powers and checks and balances had a strong influence on the founding fathers. Montesquieu argued that “government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another”, which was well received by the founding fathers, particularly James Madison, who believed that a clearly defined and balanced separation of powers system that utilized checks and balances would provide a stable foundation for the new government.
Montesquieu argued that government should be created to accommodate separate branches of government with equal but different powers. This way, power would not be concentrated with one individual or group of individuals. Liberty was threatened if power became concentrated in one place; thus, no branch of government could threaten the freedom of the people.
a form of government based on a written set of laws that all citizens agree to; in this form of government, the constitution is the highest law of the land
the power of the judicial branch to review the actions of the executive and legislative branches and determine whether or not they are unconstitutional (this includes laws passed by Congress); the U.S. Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison established this power
a government that has been limited in power by a constitution, or written agreement
Marbury v. Madison
U.S. Supreme Court case that established judicial review
separation of powers
the structure of the federal government, according to the U.S. Constitution, that sets up three branches with their own distinct powers and responsibilities
Suggested Student Activity Sequence
Teacher note: Teach this benchmark after you have taught the content for SS.7.C.3.3: Illustrate the structure and function (three branches of government established in Articles I, II, and III with corresponding powers) of government in the United States as established in the Constitution. If you use the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship’s lesson for SS.7.C.3.3, the “Three Branches Graphic Organizer” from that lesson can be utilized during this lesson.
To begin this lesson, pass out the Separation of Powers: What’s for Lunch? Simulation Activity Packet, Pages 1-4 from iCivics: http://www.icivics.org/teachers/lesson-plans/separation-powers-whats-lunch.
Place students into cooperative groups of 3-4 students and arrange the groups in a circle. Teacher note: You will need at least 3 groups to complete the simulation activity.
Read aloud the first paragraph on Page 1 as a whole class.
Project the “Separation of Powers Introduction to Roles” handout and review the simulation steps as a whole class. Explain to students that the activity will have 5 rounds, and that each group will act as Lead Chefs, Menu Writers, and Nutrition Inspectors, depending on the round.
Instruct students to write their names in the space provided under Round 1 and complete the Round 1 activity.
Instruct groups to pass their packet to the group on their right.
Read aloud the instructions for Round 2 and instruct groups to write their names on the space provided.
Instruct each group to complete the Round 2 activity.
Instruct each group to pass their packets back to the group that completed Round 1.
Read aloud the instructions for Round 3 and instruct groups to complete the Round 3 activity.
Instruct each group to pass their packet back to the group that completed Round 2.
Read aloud the instructions for Round 4 and instruct the groups to complete the Round 4 activity.
Instruct each group to pass the packet to a new group.
Read aloud the instructions for Round 5 and instruct groups to complete the Round 5 activity.
Instruct the groups to share out the final menu and whether or not it was determined to be healthy.
Debrief this activity with the students by posing the following questions for discussion: “What did you notice about the jobs of the Lead Chefs, Menu Writers, and Judges? Are their responsibilities different? Did their separate responsibilities relate to each other?”
Project the following civics vocabulary term and definition on the board: constitutional government - a form of government based on a written set of laws that all citizens agree to; in this form of government, the constitution is the highest law of the land.
Pose the following questions for discussion: “What does this term mean in your own words? What evidence in the definition led you to your answer? Do we have a constitutional government? How do you know?”
Instruct students to write the definition of constitutional government on their own notebook paper.
Project the image of the U.S. Constitution: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=9#. Ask students to identify the document and share out what they think they know about it.
Lead students to the understanding that they are looking at the U.S. Constitution and that the U.S. has a constitutional government. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
Provide the following key points about the three branches of government and instruct students to take notes on their own notebook paper. Key points to include:
The legislative branch is made up of Congress, comprised of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The legislative branch writes and passes laws.
The executive branch is made up of the President, the Cabinet and federal agencies. The executive branch signs bills into law and can veto bills. This branch makes sure that laws are carried out.
The judicial branch is made up of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts. This branch makes sure laws are in line with the U.S. Constitution.
Teacher note: If your class has completed the lesson for SS.7.C.3.3, instruct the students to take out their “Three Branches Graphic Organizer” from that lesson and review the structure and function of each branch.
Explain to students that the activity they completed earlier in the lesson is similar to how things are accomplished among the three branches of the federal government. Each branch has separate powers and they work together to accomplish the goal of governing the country.
Pass out the “Separation of Powers Post-Simulation Activity” student activity sheet. Teacher note: This is a half-page sheet, copy and cut enough activity sheets for the whole class.
Complete the activities as a whole class. Teacher note: Use the Teacher Answer Key to guide activity completion.
Pose the following questions for discussion: “What do you notice about the three branches? Do they have the same or separate jobs? Do the jobs for each branch relate to the other two? Why do you think this is?”
Explain to students that the structure of the federal government, according to the U.S. Constitution, sets up three branches with their own distinct powers and responsibilities. This is known as “separation of powers.” Instruct students to add this term and definition to their notebook paper.
Pose the following questions for discussion: “Why do you think the government is structured in this way? What is the benefit of the branches having separate powers? During the Anticipation Activity, could the Lead Chef, Menu Writer, or Judge make all of the decisions? What was the outcome of each role having a say in the process?”
Return students to their cooperative groups from the beginning of the lesson.
Pass out the “Excerpts of Articles I, II, III and V of the U.S. Constitution” reading and the “Who’s Got the Power?” student activity sheet.
Explain to students that they will work in their cooperative groups to identify the branch of government that is responsible for the power listed on the activity sheet. To accomplish this task, they will need to find where the power is listed in the “Excerpts of Articles I, II, III and V of the U.S. Constitution” reading, highlight the power in the reading, mark the number from the activity sheet on the reading and then write on the activity sheet the Article and Section from the U.S. Constitution where they found the evidence to support their answer. Teacher note: Instruct students to use only one color highlighter for this activity. They will need to use a second color later in the lesson.
Model the first two powers on the activity sheet by completing the rows as a whole class.
Provide time for the students to complete 3-13 on the activity sheet.
Review the answers as a whole class by asking students to share their answer and the evidence from the U.S. Constitution that supports their answer.
Direct student attention to #14 on the activity sheet.
Explain to students that the power to declare laws unconstitutional is held by the judicial branch. This power is known as the power of judicial review and is not found in the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison (1803) established this power.
Instruct students to add the definition of judicial review to their activity sheet.
Direct student attention to the following statement in Article II, Section 2: He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.
Read aloud and ask students what they think is the main idea of this sentence.
Lead students to the understanding that the president has the power to make treaties, but the Senate approves treaties for ratification.
Instruct students to add the Senate’s role in treaties to Number 15 on their activity sheet.
Pose the following questions for discussion: “Now that you have identified additional powers for each branch of government, how would you summarize the powers for each branch? Does each branch have unlimited power? Why do you think this is?”
Lead students to the understanding that the Founding Fathers separated powers among the three branches of government in order to prevent any of the branches from becoming too powerful and therefore harming the rights and well being of citizens. This concept is known as “limited government.” By structuring the government in this way, it limits government’s power because each branch is responsible for only the powers and functions of their branch as outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Project the definition for limited government on the board: limited government – a government that has been limited in power by a constitution, or written agreement. Instruct students to add this definition to the back of their notebook paper.
Explain to students that in addition to each branch having separate powers, each branch also has the ability to “check” the powers of the other two branches. This is known as “checks and balances” and means that each branch can limit the actions of the other two branches. Instruct students to add this term to their notebook paper.
Instruct students to return to their cooperative groups, make sure the “Excerpts of Articles I, II, III and V of the U.S. Constitution” reading is on their desks and instruct students to select a different highlighter that they will use for this activity. Teacher note: This highlighter needs to be a different color from the one used earlier in the lesson.
Pass out one of the following activity sheets to each group: “You Be The President,” “You Be The Congress” and “You Be The Supreme Court.” Make sure that the activity sheets are evenly divided between the cooperative groups.
Explain to students that each activity sheet includes a summary of the powers for the branch of government, a list of how that branch can check the other two and a role-play scenario.
Instruct students to read the first three sections of the activity sheet that outlines the powers of the branch and the powers that branch has to check the other two branches.
Explain to students that their task is to work with their cooperative group to find evidence from the “Excerpts of Articles I, II, III and V of the U.S. Constitution” reading to support the checks on powers for their assigned branch of government. To accomplish this task, they will highlight the evidence in their reading and then on their activity sheet write the Article and Section from the U.S. Constitution that supports each check.
Provide time for the cooperative groups to complete this task.
Have students share out. Instruct students to write down the checks for the other two branches of government that they were not assigned on the back of their “You Be the President, Congress, or Supreme Court” activity sheet.
Pose the following questions for discussion: “What is the difference between ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’? How would describe these concepts to someone who doesn’t know how the government works? How do these concepts support the idea of a limited government?”
Merge the groups into three groups so that there is one group for each branch.
Instruct the groups to read through the “Directions for Part One” section of their activity sheet, complete the activity and rehearse their scenario.
Provide time for students to complete this task.
Bring the three groups together to perform their scenarios. Begin by having members of the executive branch present their scenario, including their goal and the actions they plan to take in order to accomplish this goal. Repeat this step for the legislative and judicial groups.
Direct student attention to “Directions for Part Two” on their activity sheet and read through the directions as a whole class.
Provide the groups with time to brainstorm how they would prevent the other two branches of government from accomplishing their goals through checking their powers.
Bring the three groups together again. Begin by having members of the executive branch present the ways in which they would attempt to prevent the legislative and judicial branches from accomplishing their goals. Repeat this step for the legislative and judicial groups.
Pose the following questions for discussion: “How do the scenarios for each role play relate to the concept of checks and balances? How is the concept of checks and balances related to limited government?”
Checking for Understanding (Formative Assessment):
Instruct students to write a well-crafted informative response using one of the following prompts:
How do the systems of separation of powers and checks and balances limit the power of the government? Give an example of a power for each branch and one example of how each branch can “check” that power.
In Federalist No. 47, James Madison wrote the following: “…Montesquieu was guided… in saying ‘There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body’ … he did not mean that these departments ought to have … no CONTROL over, the acts of each other.”
Explain the passage in your own words and how this passage is related to the concept of checks and balances.
Extension Suggestion: Have students play the “Checks and Balances Game” from Sheppard Games: http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/usa_game/government/checks_and_balances.htm