HGov: Federalism


A characteristic of the American political system is its division of authority between national and state governments. The first U.S. government, established by the Articles of Confederation, was essentially a union of the states. However, the Constitution was needed because the nation under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to accomplish its expected goals, particularly those of a strong defense and an integrated economy.

Federalism 2In establishing the basis for a stronger national government, the U.S. Constitution also made provision for safeguarding state interests. The result was the creation of a federal system in which sovereignty was vested in both national and state governments. The Constitution enumerates the general powers of the national government and grants it implied powers through the “necessary and proper” clause. Other powers are reserved to the states by the Tenth Amendment.

From 1789 to 1865, the nation’s survival was at issue. The states found it convenient at times to argue that their sovereignty took precedence over national authority. In the end, it took the Civil War to cement the idea that the United States was a union of people, not of states. federalism 3From 1865 to 1937, federalism reflected the doctrine that certain policy areas were the exclusive responsibility of the national government, whereas responsibility in other policy areas belonged exclusively to the states. This constitutional position validated the laissez-faire doctrine that big business was largely beyond governmental control. It also allowed the states to discriminate against African Americans in their public policies. Federalism in a form recognizable today began to emerge in the 1930s. In the areas of commerce, taxation, spending, civil rights, and civil liberties, among others, the federal government now plays an important role, one that is the inevitable consequence of the increasing complexity of American society and the interdependence of its people. National, state, and local officials now work closely together to solve the nation’s problems, a situation known as cooperative federalism. Grants-in-aid from Washington to the states and localities have been the chief instrument of national influence. States and localities have received billions in federal assistance; in accepting federal money, they also have accepted both federal restrictions on its use and the national policy priorities that underlie the granting of the money.

Throughout the nation’s history, the public through its demands on government has influenced the boundaries between federal and state power. The devolutionary trend of the 1990s, for example, was sparked by Americans’ sense that a rollback in federal power was desirable, whereas the recent expansion of federal power has been a response to Americans’ concerns about terrorism and economic recovery.

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