Library

The Principles of Limited Government and Separation of Powers in the U. S. Constitution

July 24, 2020

Washington at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Signing of the U. S. Constitution by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856.

When the American Founders wrote the United States’ Constitution of 1787, they created a new form of government for the nation based on early Americans’ philosophical beliefs about mankind.  Most early Americans held a philosophical worldview—in line with the Bible—that mankind is fallible and, therefore, that civil government is necessary to restrain man’s evil in society.  They also believed that government itself should be limited in order to minimize evil within it.  To limit the central government, the Founders, inspired by philosopher Charles de Montesquieu, separated its functions and powers into three branches to create a unique American system of checks and balances never before applied in history.

Founding-era Americans’ conception of civil government was directly shaped by their philosophical view of human nature.  Most of them recognized that while mankind is created by God, possessing God-given natural rights and destined to be free, mankind with free will is also fallible.  Thus, while human beings are moral beings capable of much good, they are also corruptible and capable of much evil.  This view was supported by certain classic philosophers and the Bible as well as by human history and colonial experience.  Classic thinker Aristotle, for example, acknowledged in his 350 BCE Politics that man is full of beastly desires and passions.  He writes, “He who bids the law rule may be deemed to bid God and Reason alone rule, but he who bids man rule adds an element of the beast; for desire is a wild beast, and passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men.”[1]  In the Bible, Genesis 3 tells of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, imputing sin and mortality to the human race.  In Jeremiah 3:5, God says of His people through the prophet Jeremiah, “‘You have spoken and done evil things, as you were able.’”  In Jeremiah 17:9, God confirms that “‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?’”  The Apostle Paul similarly points out in Romans 3:10 that “‘there is none righteous, no, not one’” and in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[2]  The American Founders shared and similarly expressed this view of human nature.  Founder John Adams wrote in his 1787 Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, “Trust not to human nature, without a control, the conduct of my cause.”[3]  Constitution architect James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 37 of the “infirmities and depravities of the human character” and in Federalist Paper 55 of the “degree of depravity in mankind.”[4]  Founder Alexander Hamilton similarly acknowledged in Federalist Paper 78 the “depravity of human nature” and the “folly and wickedness of mankind.”[5]

The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 1509/1510.

Because of man’s sinful nature, early Americans believed that just civil government and laws are necessary on earth to uphold moral order and to restrain evil in society for the protection and preservation of mankind.  This idea is expressed in the Bible.  In Romans 13:1-4, Paul recognizes this ordinance for and purpose of just civil government.  He writes, …

The Founders aligned with the Bible’s position on the role of just government to restrict evil and uphold justice in society.  Hamilton posed in Federalist Paper 15, “Why has government been instituted at all?  Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”[7]

Portrait of James Madison by James Vanderlyn, 1816, White House Collection.

The Founders’ understanding of human nature further led them to recognize that civil government itself, in being administered by imperfect people, must also be controlled in order to minimize corruption and abuse of power within it.  Madison expressed the two-fold need for restraints both by and within government in his Federalist Paper 51: … 

The Founders knew, therefore, that government is more likely to remain just, moral, and upright when it is based not on an idealistic view of the goodness of man but on a realistic view of man’s fallibility.  Adams thought that some philosophers of the past such as Plato, Manilius, and Condorcet had erred in their conceptions of government because they relied too much on the goodness of extraordinary men.  He noted of these thinkers, “Not one of them takes human nature as it is for his foundation.”[9]  He elaborated on this point in his Defense of the Constitutions, observing, “In the institution of government, it must be remembered, that although reason ought always to govern individuals, it certainly never did since the Fall, and never will till the [New] Millennium; and human nature must be taken as it is, as it has been, and will be [brackets mine].”[10]  As such, the Founders sought to create a limited government for imperfect men that could restrain evil both in society and within the government itself.

Puritans Going to Church by George Henry Boughton, c1884.

To be sure, the Founders’ understanding of the need for limited government was not new in America.  It had been ingrained in them not only by the Bible but also by human history and a century of colonial experience.  Their value of limited government resembled, as it were, the Bible-based values of the colonial American Puritans of the 1600s.  In their early colonies, the Puritans had also recognized man’s sinful nature and, as Rozann Rothman observes in her 1980 essay, The Impact of Covenant and Contract Theories on Conceptions of the U. S. Constitutions, that “there had to be limits on power just as there had to be sufficient power to secure the purposes of their community.”[11]  For example, leading Massachusetts Puritan pastor John Cotton wrote in his 1655 sermon “Limitation of Government” of the need to restrict man’s rule based on Jeremiah 3:5.  He admonished, … 

The Founders’ views were similar to those of the Puritans, says Rothman, in their “motivation and awareness of conflicting imperatives” of authority and restraint.[13]  Like the Puritans, the Founders sought to create a government that, through its form and structure, could address the realistic needs of man and society.  Rothman observes, “It seems clear that in each case [of the Puritans and the Founders], a dependence on institutional structure generated the habits and practices that transformed words, ideas and beliefs into a viable political order [brackets mine].”[14]  Though the Puritans’ colonial governments were more primitive, both generations valued limited government.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, 1700s.

When considering the type of limited government to implement in the new nation, the Founders drew from the theory of French Enlightenment-era judge and philosopher, Charles de Montesquieu.  Montesquieu shared the Founders’ God-oriented worldview that man is fallible.  In his influential 1748 The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu observed that man “incessantly transgresses the laws established by God, and changes those of his own instituting” and is “hurried away by a thousand impetuous passions.”  Man needs laws, therefore, that “confined him to his duty.”[15]  In addition, to address the problem of imperfect governors, governing power must be limited, he thought, by dividing or separating it.  As such, each major function of government must reside in an independent branch that checks and balances the other branches.  For the combining of these functions in the same political body, he saw, had led to much oppression and tyranny throughout history.  He explains, “Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.  …  To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.”[16]  Montesquieu thus articulated a novel structure of three independent branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial.  He elaborates, …

Montesquieu’s theory was particularly unusual because it presented a third, independent judicial branch.  For civil states throughout history typically had only one or two arms of government, executive and/or legislative, with the judicial role exercised by one of these arms.  Yet the Founders endeavored to apply Montesquieu’s theory when constructing their new nation’s government.

James Madison, President of the United States by Thomas Sully, c1809-1817.  Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution.”

The Founders structured the United States’ government with three independent branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—to make, implement, and interpret the law respectively.  Each branch possessed not only legal powers and functions but also limits and restraints.  Each branch was counterbalanced by and accountable to the other branches.  The Founders’ creation of a third branch—an independent judicial system of courts—became a distinguishing element of the American system.  Indeed, as Russell Kirk notes in his 1991 The Roots of American Order, one of the most remarkable features of the American system is the independent judiciary “endowed with the power to rule upon the constitutionality of the acts of national and state legislatures.”[18]  Madison defended the three separate branches to limit the government in his Federalist Paper 47, explaining, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny,” and “the preservation of liberty requires that the three great departments of power should be separate and distinct.”[19]  Madison in his Federalist Paper 51 described the separate branches as a check of one human ambition on another.  “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he asserted, in order to supply, “by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.”[20]  Constitution signer and first U. S. President George Washington in his 1796 presidential Farewell Address reiterated the need for separate branches because of man’s imperfection, noting,

A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position.—The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the Guardian of the Public Will against invasions by the others, has been evinced.[21]

The Founders’ three-branched system served as a kind of back-up plan if or when man’s virtue failed.  In this way, the Founders constructed a new, unique governing framework for America’s experiment in self-government never before implemented in the world.

As it were, the Founders also limited power in the U. S. central government by dividing powers between the national and state governments in the union in what became the American federal system.  The U. S. Constitution divided power by granting only necessary, enumerated powers to the national government and reserving all other powers to the states and people.  Amendments 9 and 10 of the U. S. Bill of Rights, for instance, state respectively that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”[22]  This division of power further addressed the early Americans’ mistrust of concentrated central power and their aim to protect citizens’ rights and freedoms.

U. S. Constitution of 1787.

Clearly, the founding-era Americans’ Bible-based understanding of mankind influenced the form and structure of the American government laid out in the U. S. Constitution.  Given man’s fallen condition, the Founders designed a system with controls to diffuse power and thus minimize evil-doing.  In his 1919 The American Commonwealth, British jurist James Bryce reflected on the influence of this philosophy, as shared by the Puritans, on the U. S. Constitution of 1787:

[T]here is a hearty Puritanism in the view of human nature that pervades the instrument of 1787.  It is the work of men who believed in original sin, and were resolved to leave open for transgressors no door which they could possibly shut.  …  The aim of the Constitution seems to be not so much to attain great common ends by securing good government as to avert the evils which will flow, not merely from a bad government, but from any government strong enough to threaten the pre-existing communities or the individual citizen.[23]

In his 2006 Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America, Ellis Sandoz affirmed this Bible-aligned philosophical influence on the American system: … 

In conclusion, founding-era Americans recognized—in accordance with their Bible-oriented worldview of fallible mankind—the need for a limited civil government that could restrain man’s evil tendencies both in society and within the government itself.  To control the nation’s central government, the Founders separated its powers into three independent branches, including an independent judiciary, that checked and balanced one another.  In doing so, the Founders designed a new, modern governing system that was unprecedented in history.  Their bold initiation of separation of powers became a defining trait of the American system.  Sandoz describes it as “the genius of the Constitution” and “the well-known hallmark of America’s republican experiment itself.”[25]  America’s distinctive system of governance conveyed in the U. S. Constitution successfully endures and operates today.

—–

[1]  Aristotle, Politics, 350 B.C.E., book 3, part 16, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1908), 140.  See also Aristotle, Politics, 350 B. C. E., book 3, part 16, trans. Benjamin Jowett, The Internet Classics Archives, Massachusetts Institute of Technology <classics.mit.edu>, 1994-2009.

[2]  New King James Version (NKJV)

[3]  John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1787, vol. 3 cont., in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, vol. 6, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston:  Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 204.

[4]  James Madison, Federalist Paper #37, 1788, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 231; James Madison, Federalist Paper #55, 1788, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 346.

[5]  Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper #78, 1788, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 471.

[6]  New King James Version (NKJV)

[7]  Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper #15, 1787, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 110.

[8]  James Madison, Federalist Paper #51, 1788, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 322.

[9]  John Adams, Marginalia, 1811, in The Works of John Adams, vol. 4, no. 466, ed. C. F. Adams; Zoltan Haraszti, John Adams and the Prophet of Progress (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard U Press, 1952), 258; John Adams, Marginalia, 1811, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. 25, no. 147, ed. Charles T. Congdon (New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1862), 357.

[10]  Adams, Defence, 115.

[11]  Rozann Rothman, The Impact of Covenant and Contract Theories on Conceptions of the U. S. Constitutions in Covenant, Polity, and Constitutionalism, Publius:  The Journal of Federalism, v10, n4, eds. Daniel J. Elazar and John Kincaid (Lanham, MD:  U Press of America, 1980), 161, 158.

[12]  John Cotton, “Limitation of Government,” 1646, in Political Thought in the United States:  A Documentary History, ed. Lyman T. Sargent (New York:  New York U Press, 1997), 36-8.  The original source of the sermon is John Cotton, An Exposition Upon the Thirteenth Chapter of the Revelation (London:  Printed for Livewel Chapman), 1655.  See Angela E. Kamrath, The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief (Houston, TX:  American Heritage, 2013, 2015, 2020), 73.

[13]  Rothman, Impact, 158.

[14]  Rothman, Impact, 159.

[15] Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, 1748, Revised ed., vol. 1, trans. Thomas Nugent, ed. Jean Le Rond D’Alembert (London:  Colonial Press, 1900), bk. 1, 3.

[16]  Montesquieu, Spirit of Laws, vol. 1, bk. 11, 150.

[17]  Montesquieu, Spirit of Laws, vol. 1, bk. 11, 151-152.

[18]  Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Washington, DC:  Regnery Gateway, 1991), 415.

[19]  James Madison, Federalist Paper #47, 1788, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 301.

[20]  Madison, Federalist Paper #51, 322.

[21]  George Washington, Farewell Address to the People of the United States, 17 September 1796, in The Writings of George Washington, 1794-1798, vol. 13, ed. Worthington C. Ford (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892), 306.

[22]  United States Bill of Rights, 1791.  See also Angela E. Kamrath, The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief (Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Fdn, 2013, 2015, 2020), 290.

[23]  James Bryce, The American Commonwealth:  The National Government, The State Governments, new ed., vol. 1 (New York:  Macmillan, 1919), 306.

[24]  Ellis Sandoz, Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America (Columbia:  U of Missouri, 2006), 50, 72-73.

[25]  Sandoz, Republicanism, 50.

—–

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015, 2020.  Third Edition (2020) is now available!

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty–the People’s Rule–in the U. S. Declaration and Constitution
2.  The Principle of Rule of Law

3.  A City on a Hill:  Why John Winthrop and the Puritans Came to America
4.  The Puritans in America Created the First Written Constitutions of Law
5.  Why the Puritans Favored Limited Government
6.  Why the Puritans in America Favored Rule of Law 
7.  Who Created the First Written Constitution in History?

8.  Why the Puritans Elected Representatives to Govern in their American Colonies
9.  America’s Founding Philosophy in the Declaration:  God as Supreme Judge, Lawgiver, & King
10.  The Creator God in the Declaration:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States
11.  The Law of Nature in the Declaration:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
12.  The Law of Nature in the Bible
13.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God in the Declaration:  One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways
14.  The Covenant-Inspired Principle of Federalism in the U. S. Constitution
15.  The American Social Contract in the Declaration and Constitution
16.  The Bible-Inspired Influences on the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights
17.  The Purpose of American Civil Government

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

—–

Lesson:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 8, Part 1, Activity 8:  Three Branches of Government, p. 271-272.  MS-HS.

Three Branches of Government….  

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the United States Constitution including limited government, separation of powers, and checks and balances, and how influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  The Principle of Separation of Powers in the U. S. Constitution by Angela E. Kamrath, The Founding Blog, July 24, 2020.  Print version in member resources at americanheritage.org.
2)  Miracle of America book sections 3.5, Ch 8 Intro, 8.4, 8.11, 8.20, pp. 288-296.
3)  Principles of Three Branches of Government handout by Angela E. Kamrath.  See “Miracle of America Snapshots” in member resources at americanheritage.org.
4)  Principles of the United States Constitution handout by Angela E. Kamrath.  See “Supporting Resources”, pp. 392-396, in Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, or “Miracle of America Snapshots” in member resources at www.americanheritage.org.

Activity:  Roles and Responsibilities Comparison Chart (revised)
Students should discuss and understand the American Founders’ views of the need for civil government and the benefits of a limited government with separation of powers and checks and balances.  Students should recognize the influence of Montesquieu’s theory of separation of powers on the Founders, noting his similar worldview of mankind.  Discuss how the Founders implemented the first three-branch system–legislative, executive, and judicial–notably with an independent judiciary.  Discuss how the Founders’ novel implementation of this system differed from other previous two-branch systems practiced in ancient Greece and Rome, and in Europe.  Have students do some research or other reading if needed and complete a comparison chart on the role and responsibility of each branch of government.  Students may then consider, Why does the U. S. have a three-branch government?  What American philosophical view of humanity undergirds this system?  Where does it come from?  For another comparison, students might complete a comparison chart of older ancient and European two-branch systems with the U. S. system.  What was/might be a common problem with the two-branch system?  What are the benefits of the three-branch system?  See “Three Branches of Government Roles & Responsibilities Comparison Chart” in “Supporting Resources” section of Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, p. 397.

—–

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

Published by: The Founding

Receive Blog Updates