Federalism

Defining federalism has never been a simple task. As colonies, the states had developed independently and, even after the Revolutionary War, they remained "distinct, different and insular communities."1 Consequently, bringing the states together in a federal system was fraught with controversy. The states had become very jealous of their independence and autonomy and many people were suspicious of the new Constitutional arrangement that would require the states to give up power to the national government. Indeed, it was the states' reluctance to surrender even the smallest amount of sovereignty that had made the government under the Articles of Confederation so weak (see "Self Rule").

The events that had prompted the states to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention, however, had also made them much more willing to accept limitations on state power than they had been before. If a stronger national government could help solve the states' trade and commerce problems, they were willing to relinquish some of their independence. Then as today, however, there was controversy about just how much independence would have to be given up to make the national government strong enough to achieve the ends it was being created to pursue.

The Framers of the Constitution created a federal system with a national government strong enough to unify the states in their pursuit of common goals without completely robbing the states of their independence. If they had not done so, it is unlikely that the ratifying conventions in the several states would have approved the Constitution. Indeed, the inclusion of the federal principle in the Constitution was a critical factor in its ratification. The benefits of federalism, however, have reached far beyond the ratification debates.

1. Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner. The Founders' Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Historical Documents

Federalism - Bill Clinton

Federalist Papers
No. 44 - Restrictions on the Authority of the Several States
No. 46 - The Influence of the State and Federal Governments Compared

AntiFederalist Papers
No. 17 - Federalist Power Will Ultimately Subvert State Authority

Think About It

In what ways does federalism promote the protection of individual rights and liberties in the United States?

How would the United States of America be different if id had a consolidated, unitary government with no policy making authority in the states and localities?

Applying What You've Learned

Choose an area of public policy, e.g. education, health care, law enforcement, and compile a list of the different governmental entities or agencies that are responsible for the policy. To which level of government does each of these entities belong? Is the issue you chose primarily a state and local responsibility or is it primarily a national responsibility? How do officials at different levels of government interact with each other in this policy area? Do you think the policy is currently implemented by the right level of government? Why or why not? What changes would you make if you could?