Federalism in the United States

division of powers between national, state, tribal and local governments in the U.S.

Federalism in the United States is the relationship between the state governments and the federal government. This relationship is set out in the United States Constitution. The Constitution says which powers the federal government has, and which powers belong to the states. The goal of federalism is to create a balance of power, so neither the states or the federal government can get too powerful.



Colonial government


When America was a colony of the British Empire, it was ruled by the government of King George III. Many American colonists thought this government was corrupt and did not care about the colonists' rights.[1]

The Founding Fathers of the United States started to believe in an idea they called republicanism. This idea said that the people in a country should be able to choose their government.[2] It said that the government's job was to protect people's natural rights, and if the government did not do this, the people had the right to overthrow it.[3] By 1775, these ideas were common in colonial America.[4]

In the 1760s and 1770s, the British government began passing laws that forced the colonists to pay taxes on items like printed materials and things that were made outside the colonies. To many Americans, these were examples of corruption and unfairness in the government. The government was making them pay taxes, but the colonists had no say in what tax laws were passed, or even what their money was spent on.[5][6]

In 1775, the American Revolutionary War began. The next year, the colonies passed the United States Declaration of Independence, making them the new country of the United States.[7] By 1783, thanks to help from France,[8] Spain,[9] and some Native American tribes,[10] the United States won the war and its independence from the British Empire.[11]

First constitution


However, British rule had made most Americans distrust federal governments. Many Americans did not like the thought that people far away from them could make rules about their lives, like the British government had. They saw government as the biggest threat to their freedom.[12] Because of this, the United States' first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, gave most of the power to the states. The Articles created a federal government, but gave it very little power. For example, the Articles allowed the Continental Congress to sign treaties and declare war, but it could not raise taxes to pay for an army. Also, all major decisions required all of the state governments to agree. This made it very difficult for the federal government to get anything done.[13]

Federalism in the early United States


The Founding Fathers – and regular Americans – began to see that the Confederation government was not working well. Some of the Founding Fathers began to suggest federalism as a solution to the problems with the Articles of Confederation.

Many more Americans began to support federalism after Shays' Rebellion of 1786-1787. Shays' Rebellion started out as a protest by poor farmers in western Massachusetts, and ended up as an armed rebellion.[14] Neither the federal government or the state government had enough soldiers or money to pay for an army that could stop the rebellion. Merchants in Massachusetts had to pay for a private army to stop the rebellion.[14] Also, during the Rebellion, Massachusetts' state government took away people's right to habeas corpus (so they could keep people in jail without a trial) and their right to say bad things about the government.[14] Many Americans began to realize that under the Articles of Confederation, their government was unable to protect them or their rights. This was not the republican government they had fought for.

Creating a new federalist government


In 1787, fifty-five delegates met at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. There, they created ideas about a new type of government, called federalism. In this type of government, they decided:[2]

  • The federal government would have more power than before. However, power would be divided between the states and the federal government, so the federal government would not be all-powerful
  • The states would get representatives in the federal legislature, the United States Congress. Their representatives would speak for what the people in each state needed and wanted, and would be able to vote on all federal laws
    • Small and large states would get an equal number of representatives in the United States Senate, to prevent the large states from having all the power
  • The new federal government would have three separate sections which would divide and balance power between them. Each would make sure the other two never got too powerful

The delegates at the Constitutional Convention wrote a new Constitution. The last part of the Constitution, Article 7, said that nine states would have to ratify (approve) the Constitution for it to go into effect.[15] The Federalist movement started working to get the Constitution ratified.

A new Constitution


Some of the Founding Fathers argued strongly for federalism, especially James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They created the strongest defense of the new Constitution in a book called The Federalist Papers.[16] This was a collection of 85 essays supporting federalism. Its goal was to convince people to vote to ratify the Constitution.[a][16] Although they were published anonymously at the time (with nobody's real names listed), the essays were written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.[16] The essays explained the new Constitution and all the protections in it. It answered many of the arguments against federalism, and explained how the Constitution would help protect people's rights.[16] For example, in "Federalist No. 10," James Madison wrote that federalism would help protect the republican values most Americans supported, like the importance of personal freedoms.[17]

People who did not support the new Constitution were called "Anti-Federalists".[18] The Anti-Federalists included Founding Fathers like Patrick Henry and George Mason.[18] They worried that under the new Constitution, the federal government was too strong, and had too much power over the states. They wanted the states to have more power. They also did not like the fact that the Constitution had no bill of rights. Without a bill of rights, they worried that the federal government would take their rights away.[18]

After the Federalists promised to add a bill of rights to the Constitution after it was ratified, and after George Washington said he supported the new Constitution, the states ratified the Constitution.[19]



The new Constitution took effect on March 4, 1789.[19] That same year, Congress wrote and proposed twelve amendments to the Constitution.[20] Three-fourths of the states would have to ratify these amendments in order to add them to the Constitution.[21] The states ratified ten amendments on December 15, 1791.[22] Together, they became the Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment set the guidelines for federalism in the United States. It said that any powers that the Constitution did not give to the federal government belonged to the states.[23] This was meant to calm people's worries that the federal government would try to take more and more power from the states.

  1. The book's original title was The Federalist: A Collection of Essays Written in Favour of the New Constitution, As Agreed Upon By the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787.


  1. Bailyn, Bernard (1967). The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Belknap Press. pp. 92, 595. ISBN 978-0674443013.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Adams, Willi Paul (2002). "The Liberalism and Democratic Republicanism of the First American State Constitutions." In Peter Becker, Jürgen Heideking, and James A. Henrietta (eds.). Republicanism and Liberalism in America and the German States, 1750-1850. Cambridge University Press. pp. 127-146. ISBN 978-0521800662.
  3. Locke, John (1690), Second Treatise of Government (online version) (10th ed.), Project Gutenberg, retrieved March 20, 2016
  4. Sellers, Mortimer N.S. (1994). American Republicanism: Roman Ideology in the United States Constitution. NYU Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0814780053.
  5. Thomas, Peter D.G. (1975). British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763–1767. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 37-38. ISBN 0-19-822431-1.
  6. Chaffin, Robert J. (1991) [1999]. "The Townshend Acts Crisis, 1767–1770". In Jack P. Greene, and J.R. Pole (eds.). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell. p. 126. ISBN 1-55786-547-7.
  7. "The Declaration of Independence: A History". Charters of Freedom. United States National Archives and Records Administration. 30 October 2015. Retrieved March 21, 2016.
  8. Corwin, Edward Samuel (1916). French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778 (online version). pp. 121–48. Reprint edition (2012) by Ulan Press. ASIN B009T2L7UM.
  9. Chavez, Thomas E. (1997). Spain's Support Vital to United States Independence, 1777–1783. United States Department of Defense. p. 6. ASIN B0006S5EN4.
  10. O'Brien, Greg (April 30, 2008). Pre-Removal Choctaw History: Exploring New Paths. University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 123–126. ISBN 978-0-8061-3916-6.
  11. Jones, Howard (2002). Crucible of Power: A History of American Foreign Relations to 1913. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-8420-2916-2.
  12. Pocock, J.G.A. (May 1, 1975). The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton University Press. p. 507. ISBN 978-0691100296.
  13. Gerston, Larry N. (2007). American Federalism: A Concise Introduction. M.E. Sharp. pp. 24-25. ISBN 978-0-7656-1671-5.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Szatmary, David P. (1980). Shays's Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press. p. 84. ISBN 9780870234194.
  15. "U.S. Constitution: Article VII". Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. 2012. Retrieved March 21, 2016.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Hamilton, Alexander; Madison, James; & Jay, John (1788). "The Federalist Papers (online version)". Congress.gov Resources. United States Library of Congress. Retrieved March 21, 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. Madison, James (November 23, 1787). "The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection [The Federalist Papers: No. 10]". Lillian Goldman Law Library. Yale Law School. Retrieved March 20, 2016.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 "Antifederalists". U.S. History Online Textbook. The Independence Hall Association. 2016. Retrieved March 21, 2016.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Congressional Research Service (Kenneth R. Thomas and Larry M. Eig (eds.)) (2013). The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation (PDF) (Report). United States Government Printing Office. pp. 44, 2273–2274. Retrieved March 19, 2016.
  20. Labunski, Richard E. (2006). James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. Oxford University Press. pp. 235–237. ISBN 978-0-19-518105-0.
  21. "U.S. Constitution: Article V". Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. 2012. Retrieved March 21, 2016.
  22. Schwartz, Bernard (2002). The Great Rights of Mankind: A History of the American Bill of Rights. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 186. ISBN 0-945612-28-1.
  23. "U.S. Constitution: Article X". Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. 2012. Retrieved March 21, 2016.