Civics Lesson: What are Checks and Balances?

Checks and balances…to some, it sounds like a personal finance concept. But to social studies teachers, it’s one of the most crucial ideas in American government that serve as an indicator of whether or not a student grasps other fundamental concepts like separation of powers and the three branches. In short, if your students don’t understand the meaning of checks and balances after a semester of civics, it’s time to remediate and fix the error.

Main Idea of Checks and Balances

Checks and balances relies on the constitutional framework that provides for three branches of government, each with its own separate and distinct roles and powers. One Founding Father who detailed this idea while advocating for ratification of the U.S. Constitution was James Madison (see Federalist No. 47). Madison based his ideas about the separation of powers on the writings of French philosopher Montesquieu. In short, to avoid tyranny and absolute power in the hands of one branch or group of people, separate branches with the ability to “check” or cancel the actions of another branch were essential. In historical and modern terms, one quick example is detailed by the process of passing a bill and signing it into law: if a bill passes in Congress, it is up to the president to sign or veto–reject–the bill. It is not law until signed by the president. That’s checks and balances.

James Madison.jpg
James Madison

Example 1: Legislative Checks the Executive

One role of the legislative branch involves the confirmation or rejection of presidential appointments. No, this does not mean that the Speaker of the House confirms that the president has a dentist appointment at 9 AM next Thursday. It means that when a recently elected president nominates someone to be his Cabinet secretary for the Department of Agriculture, the upper chamber in the legislative branch, the Senate, holds hearings to examine the background and qualifications of the nominee, and ultimately votes to confirm or reject the nominee to the position. That’s an example of checks and balances, and one in which the national legislature holds great power over the executive branch.

Example 2: Executive Checks the Legislative

One of the easiest to remember was detailed in the main idea earlier: the president vetoes a bill. In doing so, the president–the chief executive–has “checked” the power of Congress–the national legislature. Of course, as checks and balances go, if Congress can muster 2/3rds of its members to vote to overrule the president’s veto, the bill will become law, which is another way that the legislative branch checks the executive.

Example 3: Judicial Checks the Legislative & Executive

Another lesson for another time will be on the judicial power of judicial review, which was established in 1803 via the Supreme Court’s decision in Marbury v Madison. That said, judicial review is the power of the courts to overturn what are deemed unconstitutional laws. Clearly, the most landmark reversals are initiated by the U.S. Supreme Court, including Brown v Board in 1954, which overturned Plessy v Ferguson (1896, “separate but equal”). Put simply, when the judicial branch throws out an unconstitutional law, it’s a check on the legislative branch that wrote, debated and passed the bill, and the executive who signed it into law. This check illustrates the immense power of the Supreme Court and the judicial branch.

See Articles I, II and III

Of course there are many other examples of the three branches “checking” the powers of each other, and the primary source to those details is the U.S. Constitution, specifically in Articles I, II and III. However, I think the ones above are the easiest for middle school and high school students to grasp. What are some of your favorite examples of checks and balances? Leave your comments below.

Great Websites for Social Studies Teachers

Every teacher has their personal favorites when it comes to websites and resources online that help them hone their craft. As a social studies teacher who is always trying to improve his lessons and courses, I’ve come to rely on a few websites that are definitely worth checking out: – This is a free collection of online textbooks for social studies. There is a U.S. History, Ancient Civilizations and American Government textbook. I use it mainly for my online courses and tutoring, however, I can also see how this website would be useful in a traditional setting when students go to their school library or use technology in the classroom & do research for a project.

UH – DigitalHistory – This website from the University of Houston provides an extraordinary collection of primary sources, digital stories, public domain images, timelines, lesson plans and more for both teachers and students. There are written historical overviews for every major American historical era since the first Americans (pre-Columbus), and each era contains links to and passages about the documents, events, people, music, film, and images that are related. It’s the motherlode of social studies content!

Quizlet – When I’m short on time, but need to be ready for an upcoming lesson, I use Quizlet and its myriad of both teacher and student created flashcards. It helped me remediate my civics students in Virginia, and it allows students to take the learning into their own hands when you provide iPads in a small group setting.

It contains a pretty intuitive set of activities: learn, flashcards, matching, write, spelling and test. It does contain one hiccup: when using the learn or test activity, student answer choices can become quite obvious, e.g. What’s the distance a Phoenician ship could say in a day? A) 30 miles, B) Carthage, C) King Minos, or D) 60,000? However, that aside, it’s a priceless resource for social studies teachers.

That’s all for now. I’ll continue to update this post as more great resources are added to my repertoire. Have any suggestions? Leave a comment below, and sign up for our free newsletter to receive more social studies teaching tips.

The Preamble, Explained

Folks my age and older can remember the Schoolhouse Rocks “Preamble” song. When I taught in Virginia, I had students listen to the song and unscramble the Preamble, with a goal of cutting and pasting the purposes in order. By purposes, I mean the goals of the U.S. Constitution. Since the song lyrics are repeated 3-4 times, I typically suggested to the kids to mark the purposes by number, one after another (1 “…form a more perfect union”, 2 “establish justice”). I teach the same lesson online, with one modification: students unscramble the purposes in a Word document. In-class or online, it’s a fun activity that introduces an important lesson in U.S. history, and addresses the following question: why was the Articles of Confederation replaced? My video lecture below discusses the weaknesses of the Articles, and the purposes of the U.S. Constitution.