Separaration of Powers
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the Separation of Powers doctrine built into the Constitution. Discussion will cover the origins of the doctrine, the factors that made it attractive to the founding fathers, and the question of its usefulness in modern America.
Political theorists as far back as Aristotle had discussed the merits of various forms of government. The point had been made over and over again that to have all governmental authority vested in a single person or organization is to make it easy for despots to seize power. The more a society and government aspires to democracy, broad-based suffrage, and respect for individual rights, the more it would need to disperse power over a number of institutions and officials.
The theory was clear, but finding a practical way to apply it was not obvious. Congress under the Articles of Confederation had those aspirations, but found that the way it was attempting to disperse power instead produced paralysis. In fact, the American experience with the Confederation Congress gave the fledgling United States a set of positive reasons for wanting separation of powers, to go along with the negative reasons derived from colonial experience under the British Parliamentary system. There had once been a separation and balance of powers in the British system, at least for the upper classes. As long as the monarch and the House of Lords still had independent power and authority, they were able to counterbalance the House of Commons. But after the British Civil War, when Great Britain had the opportunity to experiment with being a republic, with unitary government, and even with military dictatorship, the Parliamentary system was fundamentally changed. The Restoration of Charles II did not reintroduce a balancing factor. Charles was perfectly clear that he reigned at the pleasure of Parliament. His unfortunate brother James did not understand this, and his obstinacy led directly to the Glorious Revolution: the day when Parliament simply had James arrested and exiled to France. One may suppose that what was most glorious about that revolution is that it was peaceful: not a shot was fired, no one was even injured. (That James later invaded northern Ireland with a French mercenary army is a different issue, most political theorists seem to think.) Parliament next simply hired William of Orange and his bride-to-be, Princess Mary, as co-monarchs, and arranged the glorious spectacle of their arrival in London, royal wedding, and double coronation. It would next hire George I of the House of Hanover. It was this Parliament, whose authority was absolute, that governed the American colonies. Any law it passed was final; there was then no institution that could declare a law passed by Parliament to be ôunconstitutional.ö The only check on its authority was the will of the voters who elected the members of Parliament. This is a major reason why the American colonists made such an issue of their lack of representation in Parliament. The rhetoric against King George III in the Declaration of Independence is a vestige of British custom; it is Parliament that has committed all the outrageous acts agaainst the colonies, and it is Parliament that is being attacked. Americans generally fail to grasp how centralized power had become (and to some extent still is) in the British system. There were and are no state governments in the British system, not for the shires, and not for what had once been independent countries; there is only the national Parliament and tiny local governments at the town level. In the eighteenth century Parliament also wanted there to be no independent legislatures in the colonies, and felt free to override colonial legislative measures at its own pleasure. Of course, the colonial legislatures went ahead and acted independently in almost all local matters, but ParliamentÆs refusal to recognize their authority was another reason why the...
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