Philosophy, checks and balances and the Idea of federalism

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Written by Ms. Jordan, with help from sources listed below

Remember those really old guys you were forced to study, who came up with the ideas about our government? You have to understand them to understand how our government works, even today! They came up with ideas like using the Greek ideas of republic, where the interests of the people were represented by the more educated (we call this today a more “elite” view), democracy, or “rule by the people” where people have a say in their government (both direct and indirect), personal liberty or freedom from government interference in many things, political equality or “one person, one vote” where all citizens have an equal say in government, popular consent where governments must draw their power from consent of the governed—aka “AUTHORITY”, and majority rule where only policies that get a majority of voters in (direct) democracy will be made law.
Let’s look at a chart of what they came up with:


What they believed

Thomas Hobbes (England)

One of the earliest modern philosophers to hold a materialist worldview, Hobbes is primarily remembered for his contributions to political philosophy. He argued for concepts such as individual freedoms, equality, and representative government. He also believed that humans are naturally anarchic (and lead lives that are “nasty, brutish, and short”) and need a sovereign to rule over them in order to ensure a functional, useful government.

John Locke (England)

Locke was the first of three great British empiricists, who drew their ideas through testing theories. He is most famous for his idea of the "tabula rasa" (Latin for "blank slate"). Basically, he felt that we are all born with a mind that is like a blank sheet of paper. As we go through life, we have experiences (all of which come by way of our five senses) and that everything we know or think of is a product of these experiences. Known as the father of liberalism, he also advanced social contract (popular sovereignty) theory, which said that people must give their consent in order to be governed. The government must protect life, liberty, and personal property. He disagreed with Hobbes' support of the absolute monarchy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (France)

Rousseau was an important figure in the Romantic movement and made key contributions to educational and political theory. He believed in the innate goodness of humans (unlike Hobbes) and felt that it was society that corrupts us. He believed in the idea of an indirect, or representative government, where all citizens have a say in government.

Baron de Montesquieu (France)

Had a great idea known as the separation of powers, where the judicial branch in particular must be independent (all branches had particular powers), law codes should be reformed and used only to regulate crimes against person and property (the main goals of government), and that punishment must be humane and proportional to the crime. He also used the idea of the system of checks and balances, where one branch of government did not have more power than another (although this has changed in the last hundred years in the U.S.)

Adam Smith (Scotland)

Popularized economic theory of “laissez-faire” (let it be), where the government should not interfere in business or the distribution of wealth. Instead, he believed capital should be put back into production and distribution, making a profit for businesses. Supply and demand act as an “invisible hand” acting in the best interests of society. This changed in the U.S. especially after the New Deal (interventionism).

Voltaire (France)

Religion and church authority are bad: there should be separation of church and state (establishment and free exercise clause in the US constitution). Universal natural laws and human rights exist for all. Evil is done when man strays from natural law, or those laws given to us by birth, and the worst crimes in society are injustice and bigotry.

The separation of powers and idea of checks and balances was revolutionary in a way, because people living in the new United States had been subject to British rule, headed by a tyrannical monarch and a barely useful Parliament (unitary system), which they feared (hence, why there was no executive under the Articles of Confederation). There are three key parts to the separation of powers: three branches of government (legislative—law making, judicial—interpret laws and review court actions, and executive—execute laws), three different sets of staff to manage these branches, and Constitutional equality of each branch per the articles. These are shown in the diagram below, along with the checks and balances each branch has on each other.



What it outlines



Article I, Section 8 most important




THE JUDICIAL BRANCH (establishes Supreme Court)

All lower FEDERAL courts created by the Congress via Judiciary Act of 1789


Full faith and credit clause, state’s rights, extension of government (federalism), ability to form states


Amending the Constitution


Supremacy of the Law


Ratifying the Constitution (2/3)

A good diagram of the separation of powers and the checks and balances between each of these branches:

What in the world is FEDERALISM?
The United States has what’s known as a federal system—a system in which the federal and state governments have power divided; independent states are bound together under one national government (FEDERAL), whose power is supreme. This is separate from a CONFEDERATE system, where states are not bound by a central government and act as their own sovereign powers.
A federal system is run using checks and balances and a separation of powers, as outlined by the Constitution. Many of these powers follow:
Powers in the Constitution/Amendments

  • Enumerated—seventeen specific powers given to Congress, especially in AI, S8, including interstate commerce regulation (Layer-cake federalism)

  • Implied—powers given to government not necessarily stated specifically but implied through the necessary and proper clause

  • Concurrent—powers shared by the federal and state governments (Marble-cake federalism)

  • Reserved/Police—powers given only to the states (Amendment 10)

Clauses of the Constitution

  • Necessary and Proper” (elastic)—ability to pass all laws that are necessary and proper to execute the enumerated powers of government

  • Full Faith and Credit”—Article IV that says must honor the laws and judicial proceedings of other states (but don’t have to adopt them)

  • Supremacy—Article VI that says national law is supreme (more important) than state or other subdivision of government

Amending the Constitution

Amendment—a change made to an original plan. There are 27 amendments to the US Constitution, 10 of which were ratified in 1791.
How can the Constitution be ratified?
Methods of Proposal Methods of Ratification (Approval)

2/3 vote (SUPERMAJORITY) in both houses of Congress


National Constitutional convention called by Congress at request of 2/3 of states (never used)

By legislatures in ¾ of the states (USUAL METHOD)

By conventions in 3/4 of the states (USED ONLY for 21st AMENDMENT)


Philosophers: and
Diagram of C/B:

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