Map of USA with state names

The United States is divided into a number of separate states, each with varying amounts of government and power.

Federalism in the United States is the evolving relationship between U.S. state governments and the federal government of the United States. Since the founding of the country, and particularly with the end of the American Civil War, power shifted away from the states and towards the national government.[1]

Federalism in the 1780s Edit

Federalism was the most influential political movement arising out of discontent with the Articles of Confederation. Leading Federalists tended to be (or be sympathetic to) merchants, traders, craftsmen and manufacturers, and capital-holders. In their opinion, only a far stronger national government could address the many, and growing, crises roiling the infant United States, which they identified as:

  • faltering domestic security
  • uncertain economic conditions and investment climate
  • fragmented markets and hampered internal commerce
  • poor and declining international credibility
  • failure to provide for the common defense against Native or European threats
  • lack of protection for property and coin lent out or otherwise risked
  • inter-state feuding over land claims, contributions, etc.

The movement was greatly strengthened by the reaction to Shays' Rebellion of 1786–1787, which was an armed uprising of yeoman farmers in western Massachusetts. The rebellion was fueled by a poor economy that was created, in part, by the inability of the federal government to deal effectively with the debt from the American Revolution. Moreover, the federal government had proven incapable of raising an army to quell the rebellion, so that Massachusetts had been forced to raise its own.

In 1786, with Shays' Rebellion highlighting several deficiencies in the government under the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist push for a convention to propose amendments to the Articles was successful. This convention almost immediately dropped its original mandate and instead set about constructing a new Constitution of the United States. Once the convention concluded and released the Constitution for public consumption, the Federalist movement became focused on getting the Constitution ratified.

The most forceful defense of the new Constitution was The Federalist Papers, a compilation of 85 essays written in New York City to convince the people of the State of New York to vote for ratification. These articles, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, examined the defects of the Articles of Confederation and the benefits of the new, proposed Constitution, and analyzed the political theory and function behind the various articles of the Constitution. The Federalist Papers remains one of the most important documents in American political science.

Those opposed to the new Constitution became known as the "Anti-Federalists". They generally were local rather than cosmopolitan in perspective, oriented to farming rather than commerce, and were happy enough with the status quo. However, the Anti-Federalists also included luminaries such as George Mason. The Anti-Federalists had doubts about the new proposal, especially about the absence of a Bill of Rights and the potential for an elected monarchy.

Because George Washington lent his prestige to the Constitution and because of the ingenuity and organizational skills of its proponents, the Constitution was ratified by enough states to become operative on June 21, 1788. The outgoing government under the Articles of Confederation scheduled elections for the new government, and set March 4, 1789 as the date that the new government would take power. However, the Anti-Federalists cause was not totally fought in vain. During the ratification debates, they had secured a promise that the new government would submit a set of amendments to the states, incorporating a Bill of Rights into the Constitution. This promise, known as the "Massachusetts compromise", was made good on September 25, 1789, when Congress submitted twelve articles of amendment to the states. Ten of these articles achieved passage on December 15, 1791 and are what we now know as the Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment set the guidelines for federalism in the United States.

With the passage of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the first Federalist movement and the Anti-Federalist movement were exhausted, so they dispersed. A new movement took on the name of "Federalism", and, like its predecessor, it generated an opposition movement, this time called "Republicanism".

Federalist Party Edit

Main article: Federalist Party (United States)

As soon as the first Federalist movement dissipated, a second one sprang up to take its place. This one was based on the policies of Alexander Hamilton and his allies for a stronger national government, a loose construction of the Constitution, and a mercantile (rather than agricultural) economy. As time progressed, the factions which adhered to these policies organized themselves into the nation's first political party, the Federalist Party, and the movement's focus and fortunes began to track those of the party it spawned. The movement reached its zenith with the election of an overtly Federalist President, John Adams; however, with the defeat of Adams in the election of 1800 and the death of Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr, the Federalist Party began a long decline from which it never recovered.

While the Federalist movement of the 1780s and the Federalist Party were distinct entities, they were related in more than just a common name. The Democratic-Republican Party, the opposition to the Federalist Party, emphasized the fear that a strong national government was a threat to the liberties of the people. They stressed that the national debt created by the new government would bankrupt the country, and that federal bondholders were paid from taxes paid by honest farmers and workingmen. These themes resonated with the Anti-Federalists, the opposition to the Federalist movement of the 1780s. As Norman Risjord has documented for Virginia, of the supporters of the Constitution in 1788, 69% joined the Federalist party, while nearly all (94%) of the opponents joined the Republicans. 71% of Jefferson's supporters in Virginia were former anti-federalists who continued to fear centralized government, while only 29% had been proponents of the Constitution a few years before. In short, nearly all of the opponents of the Federalist movement became opponents of the Federalist Party.

Federalism under the Marshall CourtEdit

The United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall played an important role in defining the power of the federal and state governments during the early 1800s. As the U.S. Constitution does not specifically define many dividing lines between the layers of government, the Supreme Court settled the issue. The question was answered particularly in the cases, McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden, which broadly expanded the power of the national government.

Dual FederalismEdit

Despite Chief Justice Marshall's strong push for the federal government, the court of his successor, Roger B. Taney (1835-1863), decided cases that favored equally strong national and state governments. The basic philosophy during this time was that the U.S. Government ought to be limited to its enumerated powers and that all others belonged to the states. Both the sixteenth and the seventeenth amendments bolstered the power of the national government.

Between Dual Federalism and the New DealEdit

Following the Taney court and the rise of Dual federalism, the division of labor between federal, state, and local governments was relatively unchanged for over a century. Political scientist Theodore J. Lowi summarized the system in place during those years in The End of the Republican Era[2]

National government domestic policiesEdit

State government policiesEdit

Local government policiesEdit

  • Variances (adaptation of state law to local conditions)
  • Public works
  • Contracts for public works
  • Licensing of public accommodations
  • Assessable improvements
  • Basic public services

Lowi notes[3] that this division of labor was changed dramatically with the advent of the New Deal, and three Supreme Court cases that validated the shift in power:

Cooperative FederalismEdit

The Great Depression marked an abrupt end to Dual Federalism and a dramatic shift to a strong national government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies reached into the lives of U.S. citizens like no other federal measure had, yet popular opinion favored these programs. The national government was forced to cooperate with all levels of government to implement the New Deal policies; local government earned an equal standing with the other layers, as the federal government relied on political machines at a city level to bypass state legislatures. The formerly distinct division of responsibilities between state and national government had been described as a "layer cake," but, with the lines of duty blurred, cooperative federalism was likened to a "marble cake" or a "picket fence." In cooperative federalism, federal funds are distributed through grants in aid or categorical grants which gave the federal government more control over the use of the money.

New Federalism Edit

Another movement calling itself "Federalism" appeared in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. New Federalism, which is characterized by a gradual return of power to the states, was initiated by President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) with his "devolution revolution" in the early 1980s and lasted until 2001. Previously, the federal government had granted money to the states categorically, limiting the states to use this funding for specific programs. Reagan's administration, however, introduced a practice of giving block grants, freeing state governments to spend the money at their own discretion. New Federalism is sometimes called "states' rights", although its proponents usually eschew the latter term because of its associations with Jim Crow and segregation. Unlike the states' rights movement of the mid-20th century which centered around the civil rights movement, the modern federalist movement is concerned far more with expansive interpretations of the Commerce Clause, as in the areas of medical marijuana (Gonzales v. Raich), partial birth abortion (Gonzales v. Carhart), gun possession (United States v. Lopez), federal police powers (United States v. Morrison, which struck down portions of the Violence Against Women Act), or agriculture (Wickard v. Filburn). President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) embraced this philosophy, and President George W. Bush (2001-2009) appeared to support it at the time of his inauguration.

However, the New Federalism movement is not a systematic theory of political thought, nor does it have coherent ideological formulations. Leaders who call for states' sovereignty on one issue may have no hesitation to put forward expansive federal intervention on another, in the contemporary debate of fiscal and social controversies, such as abortion, homosexual marriage, and drug control.

Education Policies under New FederalismEdit

Education has also been very controversial under New Federalism, but for different reasons. Almost all groups, State and Federal, agree that a controlled education system is absolutely critical. The division, however, is that some believe that the education system should be nationally united (and therefore controlled by the federal government), while opponents believe that education should vary by State (and therefore be controlled by the State governments).

Some New Federalists, such as President Reagan, has flirted with the idea of abolishing the Department of Education, but the effort is unsuccessful. During the administration of George W. Bush, the president and Congress cooperated to pass the No Child Left Behind legislation, arguably the most well known, and most often debated, recent federal attempts to exert its control on the education system. Many Republicans who favor a smaller federal role in education, including Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. of Utah, vehemently oppose the legislation. Some Democrats also stand against the act on the ground that it creates unfunded mandate, unnecessarily creating a dilemma for poorer states.

See alsoEdit


  1. U.S. Federalism Web Site
  2. Lowi, T. The End of the Republican Era (ISBN 0-8061-2887-9), University of Oklahoma Press, 1995-2006. p. 6.
  3. Lowi, T. The End of the Republican Era, p. 17

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