Federalist Paper Number Fifty-One

This post is part of a series to help students of all ages understand the Federalist Papers and apply them to today’s political arguments. The introduction to this series, which contains links to all of the Federalist Papers posts, can be found here.

This is a teacher guide to FEderalist Paper Fifty-one to help with leading a discussion. This is part of a series of Federalist Papers Guides, essential for learning about American government.

Summary of Federalist Paper Fifty-One

In Federalist Paper Fifty-One Publius explains the checks and balances between the branches of government and between the states and federal and why they are necessary. The nature of men is such they are selfish and seek to abuse their fellow man in the quest for power and riches. This inherent selfishness of mankind is the reason for government in the first place and so any plan for government that seeks to protect individuals must take this tendency into account.

Read Federalist Paper Fifty-One

Read the Fifty-first Federalist Paper, highlighting passages that stand out to you and writing notes in the margins. The notes you write in the margins can do one of these things

  • Restate the argument Publius makes (Publius is the pen name of the authors)
  • State a question you have about the argument
  • Give your own opinion of the argument

Discuss Federalist Paper Fifty-One With A Mentor

Now that you have read and highlighted Federalist Paper Number Fifty-One for yourself read the passages that stood out to us and consider the questions we ask about them. The questions can be answered in writing on paper or they can be approached as a discussion between two or more people. If you answer them in writing we recommend that you trim the paper down so it will fit inside the pages of your copy of the Federalist and that you tape them into the book on the page where the quote under discussion is located. Post-it Notes would be perfect.

How the Three Branches Keep the Government in Check

Publius explains how the Constitution is arranged so that the branches of government appointed stay divided “. . . contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”

This means that the way the branches, the executive, legislative, and judicial, interact with each other is designed to keep them antagonistic or at least that the interests of one branch will keep it from colluding with other branches.

  • Well over two hundred years since the adoption of the Constitution the three branches are still separate. Do you think they are functioning the way the founders foresaw or is there some contamination of interests between them? Do some of the branches, or some of the members feel more allegiance to parts of the government outside their own branch than they ought? Why do you give the answer you do?
Color code this worksheet as you read the Constitution to find out what powers are granted to each branch.
Color code this worksheet as you read the Constitution to find out what powers are granted to each branch.

“But in the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist the encroachments of the others.”

The Constitution keeps the powers of government from concentrating in one branch by giving each branch the power to resist the others.

  • What power does the executive have to keep the legislative from making him irrelevant?
  • What power does the legislative have to keep the judicial from making them ineffective?
  • What power does the judicial have to keep the executive from making their job pointless?
  • Are there ways in which the power of one branch seems to have been weakened by one of the other branches?

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

Ambition here means a desire for power. Publius is accepting that people elected or appointed to power will crave more and more of it. The Constitution attempts to make this desire work against the desire for power from the members of the other branches to keep all in check.

  • Does the Constitution seem to make each branch want to guard its power from the other branches?
  • Is it working? Does the legislative branch pull together to check the power of the executive branch? Does the executive branch martial its forces to keep the power of the judicial from getting out of balance?
  • If you answered that it is not working, then why do you think it isn’t working?

If People Were Good They Would Not Need Government

“It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

People have tendencies toward selfishness and other evils. That is the reason we have government in the first place. If people were perfectly kind and loving toward one another no government would be needed. But the problem is that someone, those same fallible people, must be in positions of power over other fallible people. So unless you want to trade anarchy for despotism you have to create a system where those in charge are forced to restrict themselves only to certain powers and to honor the rights of their fellowman.

  • Given that government assumes powers that can take the life, liberty, and property of individuals do you agree that no person can be wholly trusted with your life, liberty, and property?
  • Publius says that the first and most important defense against government increasing its own power is the people. Do you think the people of the United States have done a good job in keeping the government in its limited powers as written in the Constitution? Why do you think this is true or how has this been made possible?
  • Some people seem to want the government to have unlimited powers to interfere in the personal lives of citizens. Is it in the interest off all citizens, regardless of their political persuasions, to keep the power of the government limited?
  • Are there some powers you wish the government had that it does not? What do you think the long term effects of granting the government this new power might have? (If you do not think the government should have any more powers, imagine what would happen if they did have a new power or describe what has happened since the federal government took a new power.)
If people were always good then we wouldn’t need policemen or prisons, judges, or laws. Photo by Nonie from Melbourne, Australia, Wikimedia, CC license.

The Legislature Is Divided to Weaken Its Powers

“In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.”

The most powerful branch in a republic in naturally the legislative branch. To counter this the Constitution divides the legislative into two parts and makes sure that the two parts are different in function, election, and in some of their powers.

  • Make a list of the ways the Senate and House of Representatives are different and divided. Does it seem to you that these two legislative bodies collude together or are they most often antagonistic to one another?
  • When the Seventeenth Amendment was passed it changed the process of electing the sentaors from an vote in each state’s legislature to a popular vote in each state.  This eroded the power of the states, which were no longer represented in the Federal government. Does this also erode the checks between the House and Senate?

Having State and Federal Government Gives Double Security

“In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each sub-divided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

The powers of the state and federal governments are distinct, with the power of the federal government being less in scope – the federal government has power over fewer things. The states will naturally be jealous of the federal government taking their power and this will be another safeguard to the rights of the people. The federal government on the other hand, being above the state governments, can strike down unconstitutional laws and force states to recognize the rights of the people. So the Constitution was set up to not only balance the branches of the federal government, but to balance the power of the states against the power of the feds, all for the protection of the rights of the people.

The Seventeenth Amendment, removing state representation in the federal government, destroyed all power of the states to do anything to control the federal government and so a major protection of the people was removed.

  • Does the federal government do a good job controlling the powers of the state governments? Give examples.
  • Do the state governments do a good job controlling the powers of the federal government? Give examples.
  • Given that the goal of these checks is to restrain the overall power of government and secure the rights of individuals do you think the checks and balances are working? Are there any breakdowns in the system? If so, what do you think caused the breakdown?

Coming Up Next

Next in our series is Federalist Paper Fifty-Four.  You can also go back to the introduction to the Federalist Papers discussion and find links to all the posts in this series.

A summary and guide to federalist paper number 54. Lots of great government resources for kids and teens!

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