Civics 101: Three Branches of Government

Image for post
Image for post
Tweet about four branches of government

We hear much wailing and gnashing of teeth lately about how ill informed too many in the United States are about their own government. Certainly, it is important for the citizens of a republic like ours to understand the structure and basic functions of their own government. It is our government. The opening phrase of the United States Constitution, “We the People” is not just a pretty rhetorical flourish. It’s a statement of one of the grounding philosophical principles of our federal government.

Here we have a citizen who wants to participate, and apparently plans to vote, who apparently thinks our federal government has four branches. This basic error may not matter much in terms of how our model citizen votes, but it is a disturbing, elementary error.

The Constitution defines the structure of the United States government, what we typically call the “federal government,” to distinguish it from state governments, which every state in the United States has of its own. They vary in the structures of their governments. The federal government has three branches, the legislative, the executive, and the judicial, as defined by Articles I, II, and III of the Constitution.

Our model citizen defines the Supreme Court, the leading component in the judicial branch, as the fourth branch, “now 4 with the Supreme Court.” We don’t know, but a reasonable inference is that this citizen counts the two Houses of Congress as separate branches when they are actually the two components of the legislative branch, as the Constitution makes clear at Article I, Section one: “ All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”

The Constitution is not very long. The English is a bit funky, but the transcript at the National Archives web site provides a version with the 18th century script rendered in modern type, which makes it easier to read. Read it. It’s not difficult. If you have questions, email me and I’ll answer them. My email is

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store