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The Origins Of "Checks And Balances"

Mark Dreisonstok, 32°

The “balance of power” concept in our government has ancient origins.

A salient feature of the United States Constitution is its “balance of powers” between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. It is a tribute to the genius of the framers of our Constitution that they foresaw the risk of one branch of government exerting too much power. To prevent this, they distributed authority to each governmental branch in order for it to “check,” or restrain, the others. The constitutions of other nations, even when tightly modeled on the U.S. Constitution, are often flawed as they lack such “checks and balances.”

Yet the theory of built-in governmental restraint goes back to the Greek historian Polybius, who wrote some 2,000 years ago about the Roman constitution. He postulated that the constitution of the Roman Republic drew its strength from its mixture of the governmental forms of the day.

Kingship, aristocracy, and democracy were modes of government in classical antiquity, and Polybius suggested that monarchy could become tyranny, aristocracy could fall into oligarchy, and democracy could degenerate into mob rule. Polybius praised a constitution in which the best elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy might be preserved and “check” each other against a descent into their respective degenerate forms.

Polybius found this ideal in the Roman constitution at its prime. The consuls served a monarchic function in executing decrees and directing military campaigns. Their power was moderated by the aristocracy of the senate, which controlled the state treasury and allocated funds. As for the democratic element of the Roman constitution, the people wielded ultimate control by deliberating issues of war and peace, and by supporting or rejecting the existing government.

The Roman Republic disappeared and gave way to Empire, so it is evident the Roman constitution in practice did not contain the necessary “checks and balances” needed to prevent tyranny. Yet the ideal of the “mixed constitution” was passed down for two millennia and reached its fulfillment in the implementation of the U.S. Constitution of 1789.