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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-4


A Citizens Introduction to Federalism: Federalism and the Future of Constitutional Government





The issue of federalism is at the center of the American constitutional system. During colonial America, the original thirteen colonies, because of geographic distance and other issues, were left by England to largely govern their own affairs. The American colonists, governed by their colonial charters, quickly got used to the idea of self-government. In addition “local self-government, based on counties or townships, became firmly established in the colonial period, and helped to prepare the nation for the concept of federalism that triumphed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.”[13] By the time of the American Revolution, the states were developing their own written constitutions. The idea of a written constitution was and is important because it states the powers, responsibilities, and limits on government.


At first more attention was given to writing state constitutions than considering a national government. John Adams, for example, is considered to be the Father of American constitutionalism because of his work on the Massachusetts Constitution. Efforts to form a continental union often fell short of anything close to a national government. The American colonies and later states did work together in cooperation in regard to the Stamp Act Congress, the First and Second Continental Congress, and finally the establishment of a confederal government under the Articles of Confederation. 


More attention was given to the political development of the states because of the deep belief in self-government and because people identified with their states and local government. Also they saw a centralized government as a threat to tyranny — the example being the unconstitutional taxation by the British Parliament and King George III. A central or unitary government could not only rule by force, but also through coercion by using such things as a large standing army.


With the American victory in the Revolutionary War, the young nation faced several problems. One of the immediate problems was the economy and the debts resulting from the war. The Articles of Confederation, which established a “league of friendship” among the states, was responsible for administrating “national” policy through the Confederation Congress. Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had one vote in Congress and it was almost impossible to revise the Articles. Under this confederacy, the individual states held the majority of sovereignty. It was soon apparent that the Confederation Congress was dependent upon the states for revenues and for security.


The states themselves were also struggling internally with economic problems and also fighting with each over trade barriers or territorial boundaries. In Massachusetts, a Revolutionary War veteran, Daniel Shays, led a group of angry farmers in revolt against the state for foreclosing on farms because of debt payments. “Shays’ Rebellion” was eventually put down, but it demonstrated the weakness of the Articles of Confederation, because the Confederation Congress could not respond.


In response, a group of nationalists led by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington decided that the Articles of Confederation had to be either reformed or replaced. The result was a resolution passed at the Annapolis Convention, which called for a convention of the states to meet in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to consider revising the Articles of Confederation. The Philadelphia or Constitutional Convention was not welcomed by everyone. Patrick Henry, a leading voice of liberty during the Revolution, refused to attend because he “smelt a rat,” and Rhode Island did not send a delegation.


In Philadelphia, the delegates that met to revise the Articles ended up replacing them completely. This is partly the result of the Nationalists or Federalists led by James Madison, who is considered the Father of the Constitution. The Constitution, which emerged from the Philadelphia Convention, was a document based on compromise. The Founding Fathers who attended the Convention drafted a written constitution that created a republican form of government that was limited in power.


The Founding Fathers understood the dangers of not only unitary government, but also the weaknesses of the confederal system and pure democracies. They were students of history and the gathering in Philadelphia contained some of the best political minds in Western Civilization. Last, the Founders understood that no system of government would be perfect, because human nature is corrupted by original sin.


The Constitution of 1787 was drafted by the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who created a republican form of government based on representation, the rule of law, enumerated powers, separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. These were the constitutional principles behind the Constitution. The Founders understood the important role that the states had and that the Constitution would be limited to specific enumerated powers listed in Article I, Section 8.


Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 45, tried to reassure critics of the Constitution who thought it created a powerful central government, that the Constitution limited the powers of the national government, while reserving everything else to the states or the people. Federalism would divide power between the federal and state governments.  Madison’s compound republic or federalism was instrumental to the Constitution. Later this was reinforced with the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which is sometimes referred to as the federalism amendment.


Under federalism the national/federal government and the state governments would each be sovereign in their respective constitutional spheres. The states would also be protected in the Constitution, not only because of enumerated powers, but also because members of the United States Senate would be elected by state legislatures. States also played a role in electing the President through the system of the Electoral College.


Federalism is a cornerstone of American constitutionalism and it also is a major part of the nation’s constitutional and political history. During the 19th century American government followed dual federalism, which meant that the national and state governments were equally sovereign in their respective policy spheres. It was not until the 20th century and the Progressive Era, which resulted in a constitutional revolution, that federalism was transformed. Starting in the early 20th century, and especially during the 1930s, the states began to fall under the dependence of the federal government as Washington started to control more and more policy areas that were originally left to the states. This new form of federalism, cooperative federalism, started to turn the states into administrative districts of the federal government as constitutional limited government was replaced by an all-intrusive federal government.


Today the nation is faced with numerous serious public policy problems, and the solution can be found in returning back to constitutional principles, especially federalism. In order to do this we need to understand and rediscover the principles, structure, and history of American federalism. As a nation we must remind ourselves of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.




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