Why does the U.S. Constitution separate the government into three branches? At the nation’s founding, the Constitution’s framers understood that executive, legislative, and judicial responsibilities differed, and they provided for these distinct functions. They also believed that concentrating authority in one body would result in tyranny. They therefore divided the government into legislative, executive, and judicial branches, so that no single part would become too strong, and empowered each to limit or “check” the powers of the others. This exhibit examines Congress’s unique role and the ways in which it can balance or dynamically shape and challenge the powers of two other branches.
Separation of Powers
Instead of placing authority in the hands of one person, like a king, or even a small group of people, the U.S. Constitution divides power. Power is first divided between the national, or federal government, and the state and local government under a system known as Federalism. At the federal level, the Constitution again divides power between the three major branches of our federal government: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. Discover the battles of the branches in the National Constitution Center’s learning module.
Connecting the Separate Powers
In this lesson, students will gain an understanding of the separation of powers using role playing and discussion. Students will identify which parts of the Constitution provide for the branches of our government, and will categorize public officials into one of these three branches.
Voting Rights in America Timeline
Supplement your students’ understanding of voting rights in the United States with this free downloadable timeline. This visual guide breaks down the history of voting rights across identities, and gives context to efforts to expand and limit voting access over time, through the lenses of our three branches of government and our federal system.
The Powers of the President
In this lesson, students will view video clips to learn about the powers of the president and how they have grown and been used throughout our history. Students will use these video clips to respond to a writing prompt about the balance of powers between the three branches.
The 14th Amendment and the Evolution of Title IX
Congress and the courts have applied the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to many aspects of public life over the past 150 years. In this activity, students will explore the evolution of the 14th Amendment through the lens of Title IX, which prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from excluding students from participating in educational and athletic programs on the basis of sex. The Supreme Court’s first Title IX case, Grove City College v. Bell, also demonstrates how each of the three branches exercises its authority.
Actions That Changed the Law
In 1998, when Lilly Ledbetter filed her complaint of wage discrimination against the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, her goal was to get equal pay for equal work because that was the law. She had no idea that her decision would eventually involve all three branches of government and result in a law with her name on it – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
Policymaking in the Three Branches of Government
This lesson introduces students to executive, legislative, and judicial policymaking and to policy evaluation. First, students discuss how policy can be made by each of the branches. Then they read about and discuss how the Chicago City Council passed a controversial ordinance to suppress gang activity and how each branch of government was involved in the policy. Finally, students are introduced to a policy-analysis rubric. Lesson 5 in Civic Action Project.
Branches of Power
This game immerses students in the workings of our three branches of government. Players take on the roles of legislator, president and Supreme Court justice to get constitutional laws enacted. Players juggle several bills at once while holding press conferences and town hall meetings.