Federalism is one of the basic structural components of our system of government. Along with separation of powers, and checks and balances, federalism defines the relationship between various governmental actors.
Separation of powers and checks and balances describe and regulate the distribution of power within the national government or the state governments. Federalism regulates the relationships of power between the states and the national government. This division of power creates specific areas of government in which the states and the national government each have final decisional authority.
The authors of the Constitution of the United States realized, based on the failure of the Articles of Confederation, that there was a need to shift significant power to a new national government. At the same time, they feared creating a central government that was too strong and might tend toward tyranny. The balance that they struck was federalism, a system in which the new more powerful central government would be forced to share power with the states.
Federalism can be viewed as a flexible system that addresses the need for some level of national unity while simultaneously respecting and providing for divergent local needs and concerns. The powers that belong to the federal government are laid out in the Constitution—powers referred to as enumerated powers. Additionally the national government possesses implied powers that are based on the necessary and proper clause. The protection of the power of states can be found in the Tenth Amendment and the declaration of reserved powers.
While the system of federalism created by the framers has worked well, it has not been without its critics. From the beginning, the exact nature of the relationship between the two levels of government has been a source of considerable debate. Immediately after the ratification of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton began to argue for national supremacy while Thomas Jefferson argued for the rights of states over the national government—rights which he believed included the power to nullify national laws.
The continuation of these debates led eventually to the Civil War. With the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, states lost their power to nullify national laws as well as their power to secede from the Union. Expansion of federal power in the wake of the Civil War brought about changing ideas about the exact nature of federalism. The ongoing debate about federalism has caused the relationship between the two levels of government to evolve over time.
From the original intent of the framers, federalism has evolved through dual federalism, cooperative federalism, and creative federalism and toward the new federalism period of the latter half of the 20th century. Federalism is still an important feature of our government and still a matter of political debate. While the development of federalism in the history of our country has generally been toward increased national power at the expense of the states, recent efforts by conservative political forces have sought to reverse that trend.
Federalism as seen in the Constitution was an attempt to define the relationship of power between the national government and the states. Despite that document, the meaning of federalism and the nature of the relationship has remained politically defined and historically contingent.
Federalism and debates over states' rights continue to be debated into the 21st century. Some have argued that the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 by Congress, which extended health-care coverage to millions of Americans, exceeded the constitutional authority of the federal government and trampled on the rights of states. Similarly, disputes over gay marriage, such as the adoption of the Defense of Marriage Act by Congress, also raise federalismquestions for some. Constitutionally, the battles often focus on the supremacy clause of the Constitution (art. 6), the commerce clause (art. 1, sec. 8), and the Fourteenth Amendment, which assert and support federal power versus the Tenth Amendment.
For Further Reading and Information:
Bowman, Ann, and Richard Kearney. State and Local Government. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1999.
Nice, David, and Patricia Fredrickson. The Politics of Intergovermental Relations. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1998.
Problems with the Articles of Confederation
The Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation were:
These weaknesses introduced a great deal of interstate conflict, something that delegates, through the drafting of the Constitution, tried their best to solve. However, under the Articles, when the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution in 1787, it needed the ratification from nine states before it could go into effect. This was not easy. And the push for ratification brought on a seemingly endless barrage of documents, articles, and pamphlets both supporting and opposing it.
There were two sides to the Great Debate: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists wanted to ratify the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists did not. One of the major issues these two parties debated concerned the inclusion of the Bill of Rights. The Federalists felt that this addition wasn't necessary, because they believed that the Constitution as it stood only limited the government not the people. The Anti- Federalists claimed the Constitution gave the central government too much power, and without a Bill of Rights the people would be at risk of oppression. To read more, click the image below:
This pathfinder was created for U.S. History 1. Mr. Land's Freshman Honors. If you would like a pathfinder prepared for your upcoming research project, please contact Ms. Massaro, the educational media specialist.