Federalism in the Constitution

Federalism in the Constitution in the United States

Introduction to Federalism in the Constitution

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention at first sought merely to improve the Articles of Confederation, but this proved impossible. They wrote the Constitution of the United States, an almost entirely new document. The Constitution’s advocates, called Federalists, envisioned an energetic national government (see Federalist Party). The U.S. Constitution gave Congress broad powers, some of which are exclusive-that is, not shared with the states. For example, only Congress can make war, deal with foreign nations, issue money, and regulate interstate and foreign commerce. The laws of the national government prevail if they conflict with state laws. The Supremacy Clause in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution holds that the federal constitution, and all laws and treaties based on it, are “the supreme law of the land.”

The Constitution preserves some powers for the states, however, making the United States what Federalists such as James Madison called a “compound republic.” The states share some powers with the national government, but they also retain some independence. The concurrent powers-those shared by both the national and the state governments-include taxing, spending for the public welfare, borrowing money, and eminent domain (taking private property for public use at a fair price).

The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifies that powers not granted to the national government are reserved, or held, only by the states. The states regulate businesses and professions, conduct elections, provide for public schools, and protect the health and safety of their people. The states also retain sole power to establish local governments, including counties, cities, towns, school districts, and many kinds of special districts. These local governments provide a wide range of services, such as schools, streets and roads, elections, and police and fire protection. Most of these government bodies can impose taxes.” (1)

Federalism in the United States Constitution

The federal entity created by the Constitution is by far the dominant feature of the American governmental system. But the system itself is in reality a mosaic, composed of thousands of smaller units — building blocks which together make up the whole. There are 50 state governments plus the government of the District of Columbia, and further down the ladder are still smaller units that govern counties, cities, towns and villages.

This multiplicity of governmental units is best understood in terms of the evolution of the United States. The federal system, it has been seen, was the last step in an evolutionary process. Prior to the Constitution, there were the governments of the separate colonies (later states) and prior to those, the governments of counties and smaller units. One of the first tasks accomplished by the early English settlers was the creation of governmental units for the tiny settlements they established along the Atlantic coast. Even before the Pilgrims disembarked from their ship in 1620, they formulated the Mayflower Compact, the first written American constitution. And as the new nation pushed westward, each frontier outpost created its own government to manage its affairs.

The drafters of the U.S. Constitution left this multilayered governmental system untouched. While they made the national structure supreme, they wisely recognized the need for a series of governments more directly in contact with the people and more keenly attuned to their needs. Thus, certain functions — such as defense, currency regulation and foreign relations — could only be managed by a strong centralized government. But others – – such as sanitation, education and local transportation — belong mainly to local jurisdictions. (2)


Notes and References

  1. Information about Federalism in the Constitution in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  2. “An outline of American government” (1980), by Richard C. Schroeder

Guide to Federalism in the Constitution

In this Section

Federalism, Federalism Beginnings, Federalism in the Constitution and Federalism Conflicts.

Federalism in the Constitution: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Federalism in the Constitution. This part provides references, in relation to Federalism in the Constitution, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

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Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Federalism in the Constitution and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Federalism in the Constitution or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Federalism in the Constitution and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Federalism in the Constitution. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Federalism in the Constitution should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Federalism in the Constitution when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

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