Federalism in the United States



Federalism, a system of government in which power is divided and shared between two entities, is one of the principles of government underlying the U.S. Constitution. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 thought the weak central government under the Articles of Confederation had proved unworkable. While they wanted a stronger central government, they also wanted to reserve some power to the states. To balance these concerns, the framers designed a federal system of government. The Constitution offers detailed guidance regarding the relationship between the central government and the individual states and relationships among states. The Constitution specifies the rights and privileges of the states, as well as their responsibilities toward both citizens and the federal government. Many of the ideas in the Constitution were explained and defended in a series of essays, known as The Federalist Papers, written by leading Federalists. However, once the Constitution was ratified, not everyone agreed on how the various constitutional principles should be interpreted. Over the years, federalism as practiced in the United States was updated and adjusted to address these disagreements, both through constitutional amendments and interpretations of the Constitution by the Supreme Court of the United States.

At A Glance

  • Under the principle of federalism, the U.S. Constitution gave the national government the power it needed to unite the states and enforce its laws while balancing that with protections for state power. In this federal system, some powers of the federal and state governments overlapped, but others were assigned to the national or state governments.
  • Based on experience, Americans rejected two alternatives to federalism, finding the unitary system too liable to abuse of power and the confederal system too ineffectual to be practical.
  • Article 4 and part of Article 1, Section 10, of the U.S. Constitution detail relations among the states, including how the states are to work with one another and recognize the rights of each other's people.
  • Under the full faith and credit clause of Article 4, states are bound to abide by the laws and legal decisions of the other states and the rights and privileges of each other's citizens.
  • Under the privileges and immunities clause of Article 4, states cannot treat the citizens of other states unfairly.
  • The extradition clause, Article 4, Section 2, requires states to return fugitives from justice residing in their territory to another state when requested by that state. A related clause that required the return of enslaved African Americans who had escaped to free states was repealed by ratification of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, in 1865.
  • Article 4, Section 3, provides that new states may be admitted to the Union and gives Congress the power to make any laws required for territories possessed by the United States, both of which allowed for the territorial expansion of the country.
  • The Constitution gives states the power to join together in interstate compacts to address common interests or goals, with congressional consent, which they have instituted to settle boundary disputes, promote economic development and shared use of resources, and coordinate issues related to criminal justice.
  • In Federalist No. 44, James Madison explained that making the national government the supreme power was vital to the creation of a functioning national government and to the preservation of the Union.
  • In key early decisions such as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the U.S. Supreme Court asserted the supremacy of the Constitution and federal authority.
  • In the 19th century South Carolina asserted the right to nullify a federal law; though that situation was defused by compromise, the theory of nullification remained popular in the South. After the election of 1860, 11 states withdrew from the Union to form the Confederacy, but the Union victory in the Civil War that followed preserved the Union.
  • States' claim to the right of interposition, challenging federal court action, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Cooper v. Aaron (1958).
  • Federalism has evolved throughout America's history, and the powers of the federal government have waxed and waned as needs and expectations placed upon the federal government have changed.