The 3 Branches of Government: Executive, Legislative, Judicial

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  • 0:06 Constitutional Convention
  • 0:52 Three Branches of Government
  • 2:03 The Legislative Branch
  • 3:57 The Executive Branch
  • 5:06 The Judicial Branch
  • 6:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Expert Contributor
Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

In 1787, leaders from each of the states gathered to write the United States Constitution. The Constitution sets out how our nation is governed and creates a system that separates powers between different branches. This lesson explores the three branches of our federal government.

Constitutional Convention

In 1787, 11 years after state representatives signed the Declaration of Independence, representatives once again met at the State House in Philadelphia. Fifty-five representatives met over the course of four months in order to draft our United States Constitution. The framers drafted the Constitution to purposely divide governing powers between several administrative branches. This way, no one branch holds too much power, and each branch holds checks and balances over the others. The framers instituted this system of government with hopes that it would last into 'remote futurity.' It worked, as we continue to use this system of government today.

Three Branches of Government

It's helpful to remember that many original colonists came from England during a time of tyranny and dictatorship in that country. In forming a new government, it was of primary importance to divide powers so that no person or group of people held the majority of authority. The state leaders sought to form a powerful, yet fair federal government that protected individual liberties. This is accomplished through the system of checks and balances. This simply means that the governmental powers are divided between separate and independent structures. Each of these structures can check the work of the other structures. In doing so, the power is balanced between all of the structures. Through the first three Articles of the Constitution, the framers divided the new government into three parts. These three parts are known as the three branches of government. They are the legislative branch, the executive branch and the judicial branch. Each branch is independent from the others, but each holds a similar amount of authority.

The Legislative Branch

Article I of the United States Constitution created and empowered our legislative branch of government. The United States Congress leads the legislative branch. Congress includes both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Generally speaking, Congress makes our laws. Laws are discussed, drafted and enacted through Congress. Together, the two houses of Congress have various important powers. Congress passes legislation, approves treaties, originates spending bills, impeaches federal officials, approves presidential nominations and appointments to federal positions, regulates trade and money and declares war.

Our Congress is made up of delegates from each state. The U.S. Senate consists of two senators from each state. These senators serve six-year terms. The U.S. House of Representatives consists of 435 representatives. Each state has at least one representative. A state's population determines the number of representatives per state. For example, Delaware has one representative, while California has 53. Representatives are elected through public election, but only those registered voters who reside in a candidate's district may vote for that candidate. Representatives serve two-year terms.

The U.S. vice president serves as the head of the Senate but doesn't vote unless there is a tie. This is one example of how the executive branch can 'check' congressional powers. But Congress can check the president, too. For example, the Senate must approve presidential nominations to federal posts and must ratify all treaties by a two-thirds vote.

The Executive Branch

Article II of the United States Constitution created and empowered our executive branch of government. The United States president leads the executive branch, which also includes the president's advisors, the 15-member cabinet and all federal agencies. Our president serves as our chief executive, or commander-in-chief.

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Additional Activities

The Three Branches Illustrated Chart

In this lesson extension, students will create a chart that illustrates, defines and describes the function of each branch of the U.S. government. This is something that can be a stand alone activity or it can be added to as you complete a unit on the government structure of the United States.

Begin by giving each student a piece of copy paper. Students should fold the paper into thirds (like a brochure). At the top of each section, they should write one of the following: Executive, Legislative, Judicial.

In each section, they will then answer each of the following questions in a complete sentence:

  1. Who or what is the head of the branch?
  2. What is the role or main purpose of this branch?
  3. What is one question you have about this branch of government?

Additionally, students should create a symbol to represent each branch and draw this in the appropriate section.

This activity helps students connect each branch of government with its key features.

Once students have finished, allow some students to share the questions they have. Guide students in a discussion to answer additional questions they have about the branches of government.

As you learn more about the branches of government, use this to chart add information about checks and balances, election information, salaries, etc.

  • Materials Needed: Copy paper, coloring materials,

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