In the late 18th Century, one goal of the writers of the US Constitution was to avoid tyranny. In the end, the US central government did have more power than many people had hoped, but these people were appeased by the following documents and systems that were included in the final draft of the US Constitution:

  1. The Bill of Rights, which guaranteed certain rights for the people (and a few to the states), so that the people could "check and balance" the power of the central government
  2. Federalism, the act of granting some powers to the central government and other powers to the states, so that the state governments could "check and balance" the central government (and vice versa)
  3. Separation of Powers into branches within the central government, so that no one person or group could have complete control, and thus branches within the central government could "check and balance" each other


When the US Constitution was written, some wanted the central government to have more power (called "federalists") while others wanted the individual states to have more power (called "anti-federalists"). For example, Thomas Jefferson and other anti-federalists felt that the individual states more reflected the will of the people, and that it was thus more democractic to give the individual states more powers. Federalism in the US is a compromise between these two ways of thinking.

Federal Powers
  • Coining money
  • Commerce: among states and between US and other countries
  • Foreign affairs
  • Military
State Powers
  • Commerce: within actual state
  • Domestic and estate issues
  • Education
  • Elections
  • Local government (such as county, city and township)
  • Policing
  • All powers not granted at the federal level
Powers Shared by Both
  • Bankruptcy
  • Borrowing money
  • Laws – but when state law conflicts with federal law, the latter supercedes the former
  • Property issues
  • Taxing


With the Separation of Powers, the central government is divided into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Separation of Powers is designed to ensure that, while each branch has particular powers, no one branch gains absolute power or too much power.

Examples of Checks and Balances within the Branches
Congress can pass laws with a 50%+1 vote → but the President can veto them.
The President can veto laws → but Congress can override vetoes with a 2/3 vote.
The President and Congress may agree on a law → but the Supreme Court can declare a law unconsitutional.
The President can appoint Judges → but the Senate must approve them.
Supreme Court judges have life terms → but they can be impeached by Congress.

*Taken from The US Social Studies Help Center: Lesson 12 and Lesson 13.