Division and Balancing of Political Power

Richard Henry Lee. By: Billy Hathorn.

Because the Federalists outmaneuvered the Antifederalists in presenting the Constitution to the American people, the Antifederalists faced a predicament of what to do. As Richard Henry Lee stated, many who wished to change the federal structure of government realized that they had to accept “this or nothing.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 547 quoting Lee to Mason, Oct. 1, 1787, Ballagh, ed., Letters of R. H. Lee, II, 438. The Antifederalists were more or less forced to “attack the federal government in those mechanical Enlightenment terms most agreeable to the thought of the Federalists: the division and balancing of political power,” otherwise known as separation of powers. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 548.

The Antifederalists focused on the danger of “all important powers collecting in one centre, where a few men will possess them almost at discretion.” Id. quoting Letters from the Federal Farmer, Ford, ed., Pamphlets, 318. They continually tried to reinforce that “the legislative, executive, and judicial powers should be separate and distinct, in all free governments.” Winthrop, “Agrippa, XVIII,” Feb. 5, 1788, Ford, ed., Essays on the Constitution, 116.

This was a fundamental shift from 1776, where separation of powers was not so indispensable. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 549. Americans were analyzing their government, wary to create a system that could permit or even foster tyranny. The Founding Fathers were primarily concerned with establishing a proper balance of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government so that they each had stability and purpose. See id. at 549-50. For example, the Constitution permitted the president “to appoint members of Congress to executive positions” while prohibiting Congress from filling their created offices. See id. at 550-51. While there was debate about the creation of judicial review, it was not implemented in the Constitution, only for the Supreme Court of the United States to create the power later, as explained in A Conscientious Path of Moderation. The president would also be empowered with veto power in the Constitution, so as to serve as a check on Congress.

By alienating the Antifederalists, the Federalists had positioned themselves well to get the Constitution ratified, with one cost being having to acknowledge the separation of powers in government. Separation of powers, while generally understandable, was not a priority before the Antifederalists lobbied for it.

In fact, the existence of tyranny in any form was the primary concern of Americans relating to the structure of government prior to the adoption of the Constitution. This represents an example of salvaging gradual progress where progress is difficult. It also shows the extent to which Americans fought to implement their beliefs into government, regardless of precedent. Where those beliefs protect government and the country generally, they must be implemented, no matter the difficulty.

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