The Balance of Power in America’s Federal System

Eric Martin
5 min readJul 24, 2021


The great American experiment in self-government is more than no taxation without representation. The grand experiment is a government created by the people, ruled by the people, and protected the people from the government. It changes the question of not only what is the structure of government for free people but also what role the government should play in our lives. By establishing a government system created by the people in the states with multiple checks and balances, the founders set the United States of American and the world in a new direction of representative government. One with protections for those in the minority and defines states’ proper role in a federal system.

Political power in the American federal system comes from the people. More specifically, it comes from the people of the states. The states sent representatives to Philadelphia in 1787 to amend the Articles of Confederation, ultimately leading to a new Constitution. When the framers of the Constitution finished their work, it was sent to the states to vote on its ratification. Article. VII of the U.S. Constitution reads, “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.” The proposed constitution was not sent directly to the people to vote on. Instead, the people of the states sent representatives to state ratifying conventions to vote to approve it.

The framers of the constitution established a federal system of checks and balances. Dividing the three functions of government, the legislature, judicial and executive, among three different bodies. James Madison, writing in Federalist 47, said, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many… may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny” (Madison, 1787) legislature is a bicameral institution made up of a popularly elected House of Representatives and a Senate. The Judicial branch comprises federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Finally, we have an executive in the form of a president elected by the states via the electoral college. The federal government’s separate powers allow each branch to be from others and guard against encroachment into their sphere.

The Articles of Confederation’s failure to separate governmental functions is widely regarded as a severe defect (Davidson et al., 2018, p. 19). The powers are intertwined. Each branch can check the other and hold it accountable for actions that go outside of its jurisdiction. The Constitution’s elaborate system of checks and balances is considered one of its most innovative features (Davidson et al., 2018, p. 19). The House of Representatives can impeach the President, while the Senate can remove the executive after an impeachment trial. The President can veto legislation passed by both congress houses and appoint judges to the judiciary branch, with advice and consent from the U.S. Senate. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, is often the final arbitrator between parties and can strike down state and federal laws that violate the Constitution.

Article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution establishes a limited legislature with enumerated powers. This limited enumeration of powers implies that most of the system’s political power is left to the states and the people. The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. The states use these powers to establish laws and customs that are unique to each state. Because the American system’s power comes from the states and the people, Article 5 of the Constitution gives them the power to amend the Constitution.

In our federal system, power is dispersed both horizontally and vertically. Vertically through the federal government’s equal branches and horizontally from the federal government to the states and vice versa, the states are not the lowest branch of government but the ones closest to the people. The idea of solving problems at the lowest levels helps avoid unwanted and unnecessary friction. The federal government’s powers are large enough for it to maintain itself without crushing the states and the states maintain enough power to maintain the loyalty of its citizens (Levy 2007).

The checks and balances in the American federal system were necessary to achieve two goals, ratifying the constitution and limiting the federal government’s power. Obviously, without ratifying the constitution, we do not have the United States of America as we have it today. The framers also knew that the Articles of Confederation united them into a political union; they could not destroy the states. By stripping the states of all of their pre-revolutionary war sovereignty and placing all political power in strong central power, tyranny would soon follow. Writing in Federalist 28, Alexander Hamilton stresses that both the states and the general government will stand ready against each other’s usurpations. The people can use either instrument for redress if their rights are invaded (Hamilton, 1787).

The proper role of government is to protect life and property. In the tradition of John Locke, the man leaves the state of nature and established political society and civil government to preserve his property, that is, his Life, Liberty, and Estate, against the Injuries and Attempts of other Men. These are rights that man has in nature, and those are the only powers that the government should exercise (Capaldi & Lloyd, 2011, p. 21). To secure each person’s rights and property, the government should establish police, courts, and military for those that harm us domestically and keep us safe against foreign invaders. To maintain and overseas these functions, the government would need an executive and a legislature.

The federal system established in 1787 allows for the protection and continuation of the states and the people in the union. Its checks and balances system ensures that each branch of government is safe from the encroachment of the others. The rights not delegated to the general government and left to the people allow each state’s citizens to live by their own established laws and customs. The system can still work today and would prevent friction among the people.


Capaldi, N., & Lloyd, J. G. (2011). The two narratives of political economy. Hoboken, NJ: Scrivener Pub.

The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription. (n.d.). Retrieved August 27, 2020, from

Davidson, R. H., Oleszek, W. J., Lee, F. E., & Schickler, E. (2018). Congress and its members (16th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, an imprint of SAGE Publications.

Hamliton, A., Madison, J., & Jay, J. (1961). №28: The Idea of Restraining the Legislative Authority in Regard to the Common Defense Considered In The Federalist Papers. New, New York: Signet.

Hamliton, A., Madison, J., & Jay, J. (1961). №47: The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among Its Different Parts. In The Federalist Papers. New, New York: Signet.

Levy, J. (2007). Federalism, Liberalism, and the Separation of Loyalties. The American Political Science Review, 101(3), 459–477. doi:10.2307/27644460



Eric Martin

Husband. Father. Veteran. Purple Heart Recipient Twitter: @actionaxiom