One of the most persistent and overarching complaints the American colonists had about the rule of the British monarchy was the extent of its power. One of the most persistent and overarching complaints about the early government of the U.S. under the Articles of Confederation was the weakness of the federal government. Attempting to form a more perfect union, the framers of the Constitution designed a government that clearly assigned power to three branches, while at the same time guaranteeing that the power of any branch could be checked by another.
Using primary source documents, your students can see clear demonstrations of how one branch of our government can check another.
As indicated by the long list of complaints in the Declaration of Independence, the unlimited power of the British monarch was a focus of colonists' concerns in 1776. In response to the abuses of the unchecked king, the fledging government under the Articles of Confederation featured a very weak central government. In the power vacuum that developed as a result, state legislatures (whose power had been extended originally as a response to fears about a tyrannical king) began to exert themselves. By 1787, the overreaching and abuses of the state legislatures were causing increasing concern among the colonists. Your students may understand more readily the complaints the colonists had against the king, it is important that students don't get the impression that the only motive for the checks and balances system was animosity toward George III. Suspicions about the potential abuse of power extended to legislative as well as executive branches. Because the potential for abuse is present in any branch of government, each needs sufficient power to check the other.
This is exactly the point James Madison makes in Federalist Papers No. 48. He notes that "the legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex." The founders of the American states, he says, "seem never for a moment to have turned their eyes from the danger to liberty from the overgrown and all-grasping prerogative of an hereditary magistrate" and therefore overlooked "the danger from legislative usurpations, which, by assembling all power in the same hands, must lead to the same tyranny as is threatened by executive usurpations."
This unit is one of a series of complementary EDSITEment plans for intermediate-level students about the foundations of our government. Consider adapting them for your class in the following order:
Share with the class the lyrics for "No More Kings" from "Schoolhouse Rock," created by American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. You can find the lyrics on the Internet; just do a search for "Schoolhouse Rock" on a search engine such as google.com or yahoo.com.
Encourage discussion of the lyrics with questions such as: According to the lyrics, what problems did the colonists have with British rule? What other problems are you aware of? How did the colonists attempt to solve the problems? How was the government for the new United States of America different from the British government?
Review some or all of the complaints against Great Britain spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. A good place to start is George Washington's Copy of the Declaration of Independence, available through a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource, American Memory.
This is the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. General Washington had this Declaration read to his assembled troops on July 9 in New York, where they awaited the combined British fleet and army. Later that night, American troops destroyed a bronze-lead statue of Great Britain's King George III that stood at the foot of Broadway on the Bowling Green. The statue was later molded into bullets for the American Army.
Most of this page consists of complaints directed to the king of England. What are some of the complaints? Ask the students to keep these complaints in mind as they consider how the government developed by the Founders attempted to avoid such problems.
Share with the class the lyrics for "Three-Ring Government," from "Schoolhouse Rock," created by American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
Discuss the lyrics. What do they explain about the three branches of our government? What are the three branches? What is the main responsibility of each?
Introduce or review the three branches of government and their basic functions. A good source of information, designed for grades 3-5, is Ben's Guide to U.S. Government for Kids, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.
A lesson plan on the three branches of government, designed for grades 5-8, but with material adaptable for lower grades, is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Truman Library. Particularly pertinent is a summary of the checks and balances in the system.
Leave a summary of the three branches on the chalkboard or bulletin board.
Classes wishing to explore more deeply the origins of our government can analyze a digital image of The Virginia Plan, as amended, June 13, 1787, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Digital Classroom. The Virginia Plan was the first of a number of proposals offered to the Constitutional Convention for the organization of the government. Here, it serves to demonstrate that our federal system as it now stands developed as a result of thoughtful debate and compromise; parts, but not all, of the Virginia Plan can be found in the Constitution. Read the document to the class. What parts of the plan are different from our government as it now stands? Which parts of the plan are similar to our government as it now stands? How were the makers of the Virginia Plan (the document was composed primarily by James Madison) planning to avoid the abuses of a monarchy?
Begin the lesson by briefly reviewing the names and functions of the three branches of our government. Tell the students they are going to look at some historic documents (all available through EDSITEment resources) that demonstrate how one branch can check another.
Divide the class into small groups. Begin by distributing one document to each group. The group will be responsible for describing that document to the class. Before each document is described, distribute copies to the groups (be sure to retain copies for yourself). Give the groups time to review these archival materials to decide how each represents a check by one branch on the power of another. In each case, students should ask themselves: "Which branch of government is acting? Which other branch of government can't do what it wants?"
Make sure students realize that the FDR in the cartoon (the policeman) was President at the time the cartoon was drawn. This document shows that the President's actions can be blocked by the Supreme Court; it is not necessary to understand the particulars of the situation.
The Congress can check the President by refusing to declare war. One day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his famous "Day of Infamy" speech to Congress. Why does the President say, "I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire"? One check on the President is that Congress must approve a declaration of war.
Search the Archival Research Catalog, available on the Digital Classroom. Search for “H.R. 3687.” Click “Digital Copy Available.” Choose page six. Congress can check the President by passing a law over a President’s veto.
Why does the treaty say, "whereas the Senate of the United States ... did advise and consent to the ratification of the said treaty"? The Senate can check the President by refusing to ratify a treaty the President has signed.
Read the following statements to the class, one at a time:
After each statement is read, student groups should select one document they believe exemplifies how the particular action could be checked. They should also decide which category on the board best characterizes this particular check on the system. When the groups have had enough time, the teacher declares, "Show," at which time every group holds up the document it chose.
Ask the first group which document it chose and why. Put a copy of the document under the appropriate column on the board. Ask if any other group chose a different document. Ask why it was chosen. (Note: There is more than one right answer for some of these situations. For example, certain actions of the President could potentially be checked by either the legislative or judicial branches.) Put a copy of the document in any additional appropriate column(s).
As you begin discussions of each subsequent document, start with a different student group.
Classes wishing to explore more deeply our system of checks and balances can research relevant historical events and write about these events in a "newspaper" of checks and balances. Each article should be written as if the event just occurred. Students should employ journalistic style and include a headline; byline; opening paragraph summarizing the who, what, when, where why information of the event; documentary evidence (such as graphics); quotes from participants; and so on.
Historic events involving conflicts between branches include:
(Documents about these events are available online at the sites listed below under "EDSITEment Websites.")
If desired, conclude the activity with a simulation in which the class works on a real-world problem using a system of checks and balances. Here's one possibility.
Recommended reading from Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Page
Recommended reading from the Learning Page of American Memory
Recommended reading from The New Deal Network
Other Recommended reading
2 class periods