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What is Federalism?

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Published: Fri, 29 Sep 2017

Federalism is a political system in which ultimate authority is shared between a central government and state or regional governments. Federalism is one of the two major principles based on the American version of representative democracy that distribute power, the other is separation of power. The political authority in America is divided between national and state governments this division is called federalism (Wilson, 2014).

How federalism has evolved from its origins to the American political system of today

The United States started off with a group of colonies that were under a British unitary system. The British government viewed it as a centralized power, a threat to their rights and liberties. The Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in 1787 faced the major problem of how to restrict the power of the central government and still provide it with the necessary power to protect national interests. The solution was to divide power between national and state levels of government resulting in federalism (Bodenhamer). When the Revolution was carried out the United States became a confederation covered by the Articles of Confederation. This system became unsuccessful so it was transformed into a federal system by the Constitution (Mount, 2010). The drafting of the Constitution by the Framers was opposed to by Antifederalist. The Framers thought it gave the national government too much power. The framers intended federalism to be a device for protecting personal liberty (Wilson, 2014).

Since the United States implemented federalism in 1787, it has progressed. Over time two major kinds of federalism have dominated the political theory. A debate over the meaning of federalism began after the Civil war, focusing on the interpretation of Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, the commerce clause. Out of this debate came the doctrine of dual federalism in which the national and state governments have defined areas of authority and separately especially over commerce. Congress would regulate interstate commerce and states would regulate intrastate commerce and each would be defined by the Supreme Court. They must defer single state commerce over to the state authority. States depend on the power of the federal government over foreign and military relations, state and foreign commerce. The second major kind of federalism involved the last paragraph of Article I, section 8 of the Constitution authorizing Congress to pass all laws deemed “necessary and proper” in carrying out the enumerated powers (Wilson, 2014).

Today the federal government responsibilities are those that traditionally were the authority of the state government. They include education, social welfare policy, health care, and minimum wage. The growth of the federal government has caused an increase in spending, adjustments for inflation affecting state and local government. The full-time civilian workforce of the federal government is about the same as it was in 1960, while state and local government full-time workforce has more than doubled since 1960. The federal-state relation handles most national laws and policies. This complex relation in whole or partly fund, shape and administer programs. In American politics federalism has been central. The federal government depends on the states to provide senators and representatives through elections (Wilson, 2014).

Factors that have allowed the concept of federalism to shape American political behavior

Federalism political significance defines political justice, shapes political behavior, and directs humans towards a suitably civic combination of the two. The idea of federalism is important to the law of natural in defining justice and the natural right in defining the origins and proper constitution of political society. Federalism as a form of political organization has grown as a factor shaping political behavior. Federalism is a political force because it serves the principle that there are no simple majorities or minorities, but that all majorities consist of a collection of individuals and the consequence principle of minority rights not only protecting the possibility for minorities to preserve themselves but forces majorities to be combined rather than artificially simple. It serves those principles by emphasizing the consensual basis of the political entity and the importance of liberty in the constitution and maintenance of democratic republics. Both principles are especially important in an increasingly complex and interdependent world, where all people must live together, whether they like it or not and even desire to do so by majority vote. It is not surprising that people and states throughout the world are looking for federal solutions to the problems of political incorporation within a democratic framework. Federalism involves some type of contractual relationship of a presumably permanent characteristic that provides for power sharing, division around issues of sovereignty, and supplements, but does not seek to replace or diminish prior organic ties that they exist (Elazar, 1991).

Factors that illustrate how the relationship between the states and the U. S. Federal government influences the creation of American policies overall

In the original Constitution before the bill of rights the Framers attempted to define the relationship between the states and the federal government. In it the states’ powers were restricted. The relationship between the states and the U. S. Federal government influences American policies in that it clearly defines that people want local control over its police and schools, but the local control over their governmental services have been reduced by the federal regulations development of federal grants in aid (Wilson, 2014).

In the United States the laws and actions citizens encounter on a daily basis involve all three levels of government. Zoning, traffic control, sanitation, educational administration, street repair and other services are primarily managed by local officials on the authority granted to them by the state. Voting procedures differ from state to state. Educational policies, criminal justice, business and professional regulation, public health and other important issues are under the control of the state government. Defense, foreign affairs, economic, monetary policy, welfare reform are all actions of national government. National government laws apply to individuals living within the national boundaries. State laws apply to the resident of those states. The constitution is the source of authority for national and state government reflecting the will of the people (Bodenhamer).

The central government has defined powers in a federal nation, and has full authority over external affairs. The constitution gives the government exclusive power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, coin money, provide the naturalization of immigrants, and maintenance of the military. The United States guarantees states a republican form of government ensuring that states cannot create a monarchy. The national government has judicial authority that resolves controversies between the states and between the citizens of different states. State and central governments may differ in areas of domestic policy where they have overlapping interests and needs. The state and national government can exercise power at the same time as in the parallel power to tax. Issues regarding national authority, not addressed by the constitution allows the states to take action as long as it does not conflict with the powers legally exercise by the central government. Issues on education, crime and punishment, health and safety and other important matters affecting the daily lives of citizens the constitution does not assign responsibility (Bodenhamer).

Recognizing the potential for conflict surrounding concurrent power among levels of government the framers adopted measures to avoid them making the U. S. Constitution supreme over state constitutions enforceable through federal courts. The clause declared that the actions of the national government supreme whenever its power conflicted with the legitimate actions of the state. It also clearly prohibited states from exercising powers that were granted to the central government. In ratifying the Constitution the framers supported the bill of rights, the first ten amendments in efforts to restrain national governments from interfering with individual liberties. By listing the mutual obligations that each state owed each other the Constitution laid the ground rules for the relationship among the states. Finding the correct balance between national and state powers continues to be an issue in American politics. With each generation social and economic changes occur, there are shifts in political values and the changing role the nation plays in the world will require changes and adjustments in how we treat federalism (Bodenhamer).


The agreement of the Constitution established a union of states under a federal system of governance. The Constitution has been debating over the issues of powers, privileges, duties, and responsibilities granted to national governments and reserved for the states and its people have shaped and been shaped by the nation’s political, social, and economic history of the United States (Boyd, 1997). The characteristics of federalism suits the changing nature of American society. The flexibility of the Constitution allows the nation to respond to changing circumstances (Bodenhamer).


Bodenhamer, D. J. (n.d.). Federalism & Democracy. Retrieved August 7, 2014, from AIT website:

Boyd, E. (1997, January 6). American Federalism, 1779 to 1997: Significant Events. Retrieved August 8, 2014, from US Embassy:

Elazar, D. (1991). Exploring Federalism. University of Alabama Press.

Mount, S. (2010, January 24). Constitutional Topic: Federalism. Retrieved August 7, 2014, from U. S. Constitution:

Wilson, J. Q. (2014). American Government: Brief version (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.

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