The system of federalism that dominates the political structure of the United States government has its roots in the pre-revolutionary colonial era. The notion of a strong central government served as an inspiration to some and a cautionary tale for others; while the colonies that would become the first states in the United States were unified by little more than a shared independent streak, there existed from the inception of the new nation a sense among many that the federal government should be powerful enough to hold sway over the states in several significant ways. As the documents upon which the United States would be founded were being drafted, a growing factionalism between the federalists and the supporters of state sovereignty quickly arose. The tension between these two factions would shape the compromises and agreements that formed the basis of the U.S. Constitution, and set the stage for the evolution of an increasingly federal system in the centuries to come.
The United States: The First Hundred Years
An overarching examination of the evolution of federalism can be roughly divided into several distinct stages. The first of these stages would be the century from the earliest rumblings of the colonial revolution in the 18th century to the Civil War in the 19th century. The first British colonies were little more than business ventures; many of these business ventures ended in failure. Over the course of several decades, however, the colonies began to develop economic and political systems that allowed them to be, if not entirely self-sustaining, at least somewhat independent (Foletta, 2001). Colonies in different regions developed their own distinctive cultural identities, predicated largely on the economic systems on which they were based (Foletta). In the Northern colonies it was common for individual families to farm their land; these farms grew in clusters that gave rise to town and cities.
In the South, the plantation system dominated the economic and political landscape; in this environment, cities were less important to life in the region (Foletta). As the ideals of the Enlightenment were informing the nature of political discourse in the North, which helped to sow the seeds of the revolution, life in the Southern colonies remained relatively unchanged. The upshot of these regional differences was that the revolutionary fervor was stronger in the North than in the South, which would underpin many of the post-revolution differences in political ideology that would be argued over during the writing of the Constitution (Holdstedt, 2006).
On one side of the divide were the federalists –which included George Washington, among others- who believed that the new national government should have the power to raise revenue, control international trade, and to otherwise supersede the states in several significant ways (Holdstedt). On the other side of the factional divide were men such as Thomas Jefferson, who were gravely concerned about the potential threat posed by a too-powerful central government (Holdstedt). The issue of states’ right versus the rights of the central government would manifest in arguments over issues such as slavery, proportional representation, and tariffs. Compromises were reached that allowed the Southern states to both maintain the institution of slavery as a property rights issue while also counting slaves (at least in part) towards proportional representation. Such compromises would allow the Southern states to dominate control of Congress for decades to come, but arguments over slavery and other states’ rights issues would eventually underpin the Civil War (Holdstedt).
While the short answer to the question of what led to the Civil War is “slavery,” it was rather more complex than that. Economic policies and conditions in the U.S. led many in the Southern States to believe that the federal government unfairly supported the Northern states and the expanding Western territories at the expense of the South (Geer, 2012). As Southerners expanded into the Southwest, the issue of slavery in the new territories and states became more and more contentious. In the early 19th century, South Carolina asserted its right to ignore the federal tariff policies it believed were harmful to Southern states; this “nullification” would prove to be one of the first major showdowns over the issue of state power versus federal power (Holdstedt). Although South Carolina eventually relented over nullification, it would be the first state to secede from the Union when Abraham Lincoln, and avowed abolitionist, as elected President. The Civil War was a significant milestone in the evolution of federalism, as the primacy of the federal government over the individual states was tested in battle, and proved victorious.
The Civil War that threatened to tear the country apart would prove to be the crucible that bound the nation together under a newly-strengthened federal government. Over the course of the next century, the United States would expand from 34 states before the war to 50 states by the middle of the 20th century. From its roots as a nation that feared a standing army the United States would grow to become one of the most militarily powerful nations in the world, and a nation that began with states that controlled their own economic systems the United States would become one of the most economically successful countries in the world, and would drive the post-World War II industrial boom that reshaped economic and political conditions on a global scale.
The concept of federalism has shaped American political behavior in myriad ways throughout the nation’s history. From the very outset it informed the political views of significant historical figures, and as it evolved it helped the underpin the evolution of an American cultural identity that existed, and continues to exist, separately and distinct from the earlier regional, colonial, and state-based identities that developed in the earliest years of the United States. George Washington, who was the first President of the United States and one of the most famous figures in political history, argued in favor of a strong federal government. The federalist faction would work to ensure that the United States, under its new Constitution, would have the teeth needed to forge an effective set of policies where international trade was concerned, and would establish domestic policies that afforded it a measure of authority over the states that did not exist in the earlier Articles of Confederation (Foletta).
One of the most significant examples of the exertion of federalism can be found in the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, the industrial and technological advances that underpinned the economic growth in the United States also gave the federal government the impetus to exert its authority over the states. The federal government began to establish legislative guidelines and rules that comfortably seated it at the center of economic and political growth (Foletta). This form of federalism expanded even further in the years just before and after World War II, when the policies of President Franklin Roosevelt saw the federal government reaching further and further into the political and economic functions of the country, and usurping more authority and control from the states (Holdstedt). By the time the war came to an end, the United States emerged as one of the world’s superpowers, and had a federal government that was firmly established as the most powerful and potent political entity in the nation. The era in which the states held more power than the federal government was by then a relic of an earlier age.
The explosive growth of federalism in the 20th century informed, and continues to inform, nearly every aspect of the political landscape in the United States. The federal government raises revenue, maintains a military force, and otherwise controls significant aspects of most public and private sectors. At the same time, however, the influence of the individual states on federal policies is still felt, and the wishes and interests of the individual states often helps to steer the development of national policy. This can be seen in a contemporary context in issues ranging from education to religion to healthcare, as the influence of states or groups of states can significantly influence the outcome of debates over national policy. In other instances, it is possible to see how the rights of individual states to regulate certain aspects of the lives of its citizens are manifested. On the issue of same-sex marriage, for example, the individual states set their own laws and policies (Geer). The tension between state and federal power and authority can be seen in the advent of state laws allowing the use of medical marijuana, despite the still-extant federal ban on the use of the drug (Geer). Another notable battle has been waged in recent years over the new federal “Obamacare” health care system, which will force states to comply with the national system (Jillson, 2009).
These and other examples demonstrate that the battle between state and federal authority continues. Although federalism has evolved and strengthened considerably since the birth of the United States, there are still some notable ways in which the individual states can flex their power. Moreover, the actions of the individual states –such as on the aforementioned issues of same-ex marriage and medical marijuana use- can have considerable influence on how the federal government responds and the creation of new federal legislation. The federal government has grown far more powerful than the founders of the United States could likely have imagined, but the tension between state and federal power continues to shape the course of national policy and political identity, demonstrating the flexibility and strength of the Constitutional system that was established more than two centuries ago.
Foletta, M. (2001). Coming to terms with democracy: Federalist intellectuals and the shaping of an American culture. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.
Geer, J. G. (2012). Gateways to Democracy: An Introduction to American Government. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.
Holdstedt, M. V. (2006). Federalism: History and current issues. New York, NY: Novinka Books.
Jillson, C. C. (2009). American government: Political development and institutional change. New York, NY: Routledge.