Federalism is a foundational element of the United States Constitution. This system of dividing power between state and national governments was created in reaction to the failures of the Articles of Confederation, which governed the states after the Revolutionary War and gave very little power to the national government. In 1787, the states convened the Constitutional Convention, recognizing a need for a stronger national government, but not willing to give away all their sovereign powers. Federalism was crafted as the solution.
The Articles of Confederation
Approved in 1777 and finally ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation formed a system of government in which almost all power was reserved for the states. Each individual state had the ability to coin money, levy taxes, make treaties and regulate commerce. The states collectively formed a "firm league of friendship." While there was a national legislature, it had very little actual authority, and any alteration to the Articles required each state's consent, making change difficult to effect.
"Incapable of Governing Ourselves"
Almost immediately, the United States was beset by problems that called for a strong national government. There were breakdowns in commerce and security. The national government during this time also lacked an independent judiciary, a national currency and a workable foreign policy. "What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves," George Washington lamented in 1786.
When the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, the delegates recognized the need for a stronger central government. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, the states could act as checks on one another. Likewise, Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 28 that the state and federal governments would act as checks on each other. Federalism also allowed states to maintain a degree of sovereignty, allowing them to function as laboratories: If one state adopts a policy, other states can use its example to evaluate the policy's effectiveness.
Federalism in America
In American federalism, both the state and national governments retain some sovereignty, and some of their powers can overlap. This has on occasion led to conflict; the question of states' rights led in part to the Civil War, and the Supreme Court has nullified state laws that conflicted with either federal law or the Constitution. But it has also allowed state and local governments to enact policies that meet the needs of their constituents.
The Federalist Design
The Constitution allocated three types of powers to the national government: delegated, implied and inherent. Delegated powers are those specifically delegated in Article 1, Section 8, including the power to coin money and declare war. Implied powers are those that might be inferred from the "necessary and proper" clause of Article 1, Section 8; in many cases the extent of these powers has been determined by the courts. Finally, inherent powers are those inherent to national governments, such as the power to acquire and claim land. The Tenth Amendment, in the Bill of Rights, contains another kind of power: powers reserved to the states, including the right to regulate commerce within state boundaries and conduct elections.
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