U.S. Government 101

The foundations of freedom

USA, Washington DC, Capitol building at dusk
Capitol building, Washington DC. Dennis Flaherty/DigitalVision/Getty Images
The Three Branches of Government

The executive, legislative and judicial branches represent the constitutional framework envisioned by the Founding Fathers for our nation's government. Together, they function to provide a system of lawmaking and enforcement based on checks and balances, and separation of powers intended to ensure that no individual or body of government ever becomes too powerful. For example:


  • Congress (legislative branch) can pass laws, but the president (executive branch) can veto them.


  • Congress can override the president's veto.


  • The Supreme Court (judicial branch) can declare a law approved by Congress and the president unconstitutional.


  • The president can appoint judges to the Supreme Court, but Congress must approve them.

Is the system perfect? Are powers ever abused? Of course, but as governments go, ours has been working quite well since Sept. 17, 1787. As Alexander Hamilton and James Madison remind us in Federalist 51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

Recognizing the inherent moral paradox posed by a society in which mere mortals govern other mere mortals, Hamilton and Madison went on to write, "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."

The Executive Branch

The executive branch of the United States government consists of the president, the vice president and 15 Cabinet-level executive departments.


The Legislative Branch

Every society needs laws. In the United States, the power to make laws is given to Congress, which represents the legislative branch of government.


The Judicial Branch

The laws of the United States are a complex tapestry weaving through history, sometimes vague, sometimes specific and often confusing. It's up to the federal judicial system to sort through this web of legislation and decide what is constitutional and what is not.


For Further Reading: