Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Balancing Three Branches at Once: Our System of Checks and Balances

Created September 30, 2010


The Lesson


Balancing Three Branches at Once: Declaration of Independence

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.

Guiding Questions

  • What are some ways the three branches of our government check one another?

Learning Objectives

  • Name the three branches of our government.
  • Give examples of how each branch can check the others.


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:

Preparation Instructions

  • Review each lesson plan.
  • Download and duplicate as necessary any documents you want to use. The central goal of this lesson is to use archival material to exemplify the checks and balances built into our system of government.
  • Part I of this unit uses archival documents to review the structure of our constitutional government and the problems it was designed to surmount. Classes that have already covered the causes of the American Revolution and the basics of the three branches of our government could begin with Part II, which uses primary source material to demonstrate how one branch of our government checks another. (NOTE: The entire text of the Federalist Papers No. 48 is accessible through the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School.)
  • Obtain background information about checks and balances from the following EDSITEment resources. An excellent place to start is Vote Smart, where you can find a basic explanation of the system, arranged in a coherent and straightforward fashion. While the Avalon Project is a more sophisticated resource, giving you access to annotated primary documents, the links it provides to Articles I, II, III of the Constitution contain useful summaries of the various powers given to each branch of government.
  • An interactive teaching unit, Three Branches of Government, designed for grades 5–8, is available from The Truman Library. For information about the branches of government designed for younger grades, see "What are the Branches of Government" from Ben's Guide to the U.S. Government and "The Three Branches of Government" from Congress for Kids
  • The Avalon Project has a feature titled The American Constitution—A Documentary Record that includes texts of many documents relating to the development of the Constitution. The following sections of the U.S. Constitution are especially relevant:
  • The Educator Resources section of the National Archives website offers a series of worksheets for analyzing primary source documents, including written documents and photographs, that you may wish to use or adapt to help students in reviewing the materials presented in this unit.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. No More King

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?

Activity 2. The Colonies Complained

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.

Activity 3. Three-Ring Government

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 this page from Ben's Guide to the U.S. Government, 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 from 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 from the Educator Resources section of the National Archives website. 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?

Activity 4. Accounts of Checking and Balancing

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?"

  • FDR Cartoon Archive: 1937—The Supreme Court, available from the FDR Presidential Library & Museum:

    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.

  • FDR's War Address, available from the Educator Resources section of the National Archives website:

    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.

  • Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy
    Search in American Memory for "McNary-Haugen Bill." Choose View this item and then move down the page to select Page Images. Turn to the image of p. 286 of the Calvin Coolidge Papers, 1923-28, the title page for the veto document. The President can check Congress by vetoing a bill it has passed.
  • Images of the veto message of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the House of Representatives returning H.R. 3687, "An act to provide revenue, and for other purposes" and a House resolution stating that two-thirds of the House agreed to pass the act over the President's veto.

    Search The National Archives Catalog 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.

  • The Oregon Treaty of 1846
    Search The National Archives Catalog for “Oregon Treaty.” This treaty divided the Oregon country between the U.S. and Canada at the 49th parallel. It granted to the United States land that would later comprise the entire states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, as well as portions of Montana and Wyoming. Of particular interest is the second paragraph of the right hand page.

    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.

  • Image of a ticket to the gallery during the impeachment of President Johnson, April 1, 1868, available on American Memory
    Congress can check the President by using the impeachment powers to remove the President from office.
  • Judgment, Brown v. Board of Education
    Search The National Archives Catalog for "Judgment" and "Brown." The courts can check the Legislative branch by declaring a law unconstitutional. Focus on the words "admit to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to this case. Segregation laws were overturned."
  • Message of President Abraham Lincoln nominating Salmon P. Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
    Search The National Archives Catalog for "Lincoln” and “Chase.” The President nominates judges to federal courts. Of course, once appointed, a judge can vote however s/he wants. In cases of abuse by judges, the Legislative branch can check the Judicial as shown in the next document.

Read the following statements to the class, one at a time:

  1. I am the President; I can declare war on Lower Slobovia.
  2. I am a Judge; I can make any decision I want.
  3. I am a Senator; I can help write and pass any law I want.
  4. I am the President of the United States; I can veto any law passed by Congress.
  5. I am the President of the United States; I can do anything I want.
  6. I am the President of the United States; I can make a treaty with Upper Slobovia.
  7. We're the Supreme Court; we'll be ruling on every law for years.

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:

  • The impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
  • The impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
  • The conflict over Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempt to add six seats to the Supreme Court.
  • The Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • Supreme Court cases such as Marbury vs. Madison (1803), the Dred Scott Decision (1857) and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819).
  • President Andrew Jackson's conflict with Congress over the Second National Bank.
  • The Watergate incident during Richard Nixon's tenure in office.

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.

  • Tell the students a certain amount of money ($10, for example) is available to the class to use to purchase a special snack (or for some other worthwhile purpose). Ask each student — without consulting others — to write down how s/he would spend the money.
  • Divide the class into three groups (and appoint one or more students who will later mount a legal challenge as described below). Group 1 controls the money (the executive branch); Group 2 decides how the money will be spent (the legislative); Group 3 (judicial — make sure this group has an odd number of members) will rule on any challenges. Begin by having each group select a spokesperson in a closed session. From this point on, when any group meets it is done in fishbowl style, with the rest of the class surrounding the group members, but observing only.
  • The legislative branch meets to decide how to spend the money. Have supermarket ads or circulars available for reference. The proposal is written down. Add a place for signatures in case of approval and another place for a veto.
  • Next the executive branch meets. The group discusses whether to approve or veto the proposal. If changes are desired, the group vetoes the entire proposal. Any recommendations can be written down, but the executive branch itself cannot create a new proposal. If necessary, the legislative group meets again to reshape the proposal or, in case of a 2/3 majority, to override the veto.
  • Once the legislative branch creates a proposal that is approved by the executive branch, unveil a challenge to it. For example, the challenge could be based on desiring some fresh fruit to accompany the snack or on a food allergy. The judicial group hears the challenge and rules on it. If the proposal is turned down, the legislative group should meet once more to refine the proposal.
  • Now ask students to read aloud some of the snack suggestions they originally wrote down. In all likelihood, the final proposal is different from most of the students' original ideas. Had this been a monarchy with any one of those class members serving as the ruler, something completely different would have resulted. Discuss the ways in which this activity mirrored the three branches of government. Discuss the pros and cons of the system used by the class and a system where one individual holds all the power.
  • If possible, use the money as proposed by the class.

Extending The Lesson

  • Students can research and discuss Supreme Court cases on virtually any subject from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Oyez. With each case is a brief abstract explaining the basic situation. Some cases of particular interest to young people include:

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • Analysis
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Research
  • Using primary sources
  • Mary Edmonds (AL)


Student Resources