1.6 Principles of American Government

6 min readfebruary 4, 2023

Annika Tekumulla

Annika Tekumulla

Riya Patel

Riya Patel

AP US Government 👩🏾‍⚖️

240 resources
See Units


This study guide reviews 2 of the major concepts of the US government: checks and balances and separation of powers. Powers in the American government are split up between the president, Congress, and the courts. This process demonstrates the systems of checks and balances and separation of powers that were stated in the Constitution. 
Checks and balances refer to the system of powers and responsibilities divided among the three branches of the US government (executive, legislative, and judicial) to prevent any one branch from having too much power. For example, the President has the power to veto laws passed by Congress, but Congress has the power to override a veto with a two-thirds vote. The judiciary can declare actions of the other branches unconstitutional.
Separation of powers refers to the idea that the three branches of government should be separate and distinct, with each having its own specific responsibilities and powers. This ensures that no one branch can hold too much power, promoting fairness and limiting the potential for abuse of power. For example, the legislative branch is responsible for making laws, the executive branch is responsible for enforcing laws, and the judicial branch is responsible for interpreting laws.

Key Terms

  • Constitution: The supreme law of the United States that establishes the framework of the federal government and lays out the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
  • Federalism: A system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units, such as states.
  • Separation of Powers: The division of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government among separate branches, with each branch acting as a check on the powers of the others.
  • Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which outline the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens, including freedom of speech, religion, and the press.
  • Democracy: A form of government in which power is held by the people, either directly or through elected representatives.
  • Representation: The process by which citizens participate in government through elected officials who act on their behalf.
  • Limited Government: The principle that government power is limited by law, and that individuals have certain fundamental rights that government cannot take away.
  • Checks and Balances: The system by which the powers of the different branches of government are balanced and limited, preventing any one branch from becoming too powerful.
  • Individual Rights: The rights and freedoms guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution and other laws, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press.
  • Rule of Law: The principle that all individuals, including government officials, are subject to the law and must follow it, and that no one is above the law.

Key Questions

  • What is the role of the Constitution in American government?
  • How does federalism divide power between the national and state governments?
  • What is the purpose of the Separation of Powers?
  • How do the Bill of Rights protect the rights of citizens?
  • What is democracy and how does it work in the United States?
  • How does representation ensure that citizens have a voice in government?
  • What is the principle of limited government and how does it protect individual rights?
  • How do checks and balances ensure that no one branch of government becomes too powerful?
  • What are individual rights and how are they protected in the United States?
  • What is the rule of law and why is it important for a functioning government?

Checks and Balances

The concept of checks and balances goes hand in hand with the concept of separation of powers because it checks that one branch is not becoming dominant over the others.
Through checks and balances, the three branches of government must work together and share power. An example of this is the nomination of cabinet members. The president has the power to choose who they want to nominate however the nominees must be approved by the Senate before they are able to serve.
Checks and balances work for the good of the people through the impeachment and removal process.
Impeachment is the process of legal action against any public official. If a public official seems to be abusing their power, they can be impeached and sent to trial. If they are convicted, they are removed from office.
This shows another way that the Constitution is set up to make sure that no part of the government is becoming dominant over the other branches.


An example of checks and balances in the US government is the process of making a law. The legislative branch (Congress) proposes a bill, the executive branch (President) has the power to sign or veto the bill, and the judicial branch (Supreme Court) can declare it unconstitutional. This system allows each branch to play a role in the lawmaking process and keeps any one branch from having too much power.
For example, if Congress proposes a law that the President feels is unconstitutional or goes against his beliefs, he has the power to veto the bill. However, if Congress feels that the bill is important, they can override the veto with a two-thirds vote. The Supreme Court also has the power to review the constitutionality of the law and make a final decision.
This system of checks and balances helps to ensure that the government operates fairly and no one branch becomes too powerful.

Separation of Powers

The concept of the separation of powers was borrowed from Charles de Montesquieu, a French political philosopher.
The framers of the Constitution used this idea to delegate specific powers to three different parts of the government. The three parts were the executive branch (represented by the president) that enforced laws, the legislative branch (represented by Congress) that made the laws, and the judicial branch (represented by the courts) that interprets the laws.
This system prevents one part of the government from overpowering others. Also, it is important to know that a person may only be a part of one branch at a time. For example, if someone is a judge they can not be a congressperson at the same time. 


The Separation of Powers is a concept in political science where the functions of a government are divided among different branches. This helps prevent any one branch from having too much power.
Examples of Separation of Powers include:
  1. Legislative Branch: This branch is responsible for making laws and is typically composed of a Congress or Parliament.
  2. Executive Branch: This branch is responsible for enforcing the laws and is typically headed by a President or Prime Minister.
  3. Judicial Branch: This branch is responsible for interpreting the laws and resolving legal disputes. This branch is often composed of a Supreme Court and lower courts.
In the United States, the Separation of Powers is enshrined in the Constitution, with the legislative power given to Congress, the executive power given to the President, and the judicial power given to the Supreme Court and other federal courts.

Federalist 51

Federalist No. 51 is an essay written by James Madison and published under the pseudonym "Publius" in 1788 as part of "The Federalist Papers". It was written to explain and promote the idea of the United States Constitution, which was being debated and considered for ratification at the time.
In Federalist 51, Madison discusses the concept of separation of powers and checks and balances, which he argues are essential to protecting individual liberties and preventing the abuse of power by any one branch of government. He writes that each branch of government must have sufficient power to perform its duties, but also must be limited in some way so as to prevent it from usurping the power of the other branches.
The essay is considered one of the most important works of political theory in American history, and is widely read and studied for its insights into the functioning of democratic governments.
🎥 Watch: AP GOPO - Constitution 101

Stay Connected

© 2024 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.

© 2024 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.