Development & Values of American Federalism

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  • 0:02 Federalism
  • 1:00 History of American Federalism
  • 3:25 Values of American Federalism
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson you will explore the concept of federalism as it appears throughout American political history. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Federal...ism. Federal-ism. In the United States, we have a federal government. So, any guesses what federalism means? Federalism is a political term for a group that is connected by a representative government. Have you ever wondered why we are called the United States? Each state is an individual unit that is governed by our federal, or representative, government. Thus, the states are united.

Federalism was a very important concept to the early members of American politics, who set up our government to represent the people without growing too powerful. This gave rise to American federalism, a specific use of federalist ideas to define the power of government by the rights given to it by the people. In America, this is most often seen in the relationship between the individual states and the federal government.

History of American Federalism

The origins of federalism date back to when the United States was 13 British colonies. Each of the colonies was independent of the others and there was no United Colonies of America. The colonies became allies during the Revolutionary War but never lost their fear of a large, powerful government. To direct the American government during the war, each colony sent representatives to meet in a Continental Congress. This group had the power to organize the fight against Britain but had almost no other powers we would expect of a government, such as the power to collect taxes, for example.

The Congress got America through the Revolutionary War, but the independent United States needed a more formal government. In 1787, the Congress drafted the United States Constitution, a federalist document that set out the legal powers of the American government. After being drafted, the Constitution had to be ratified, or approved, by the states before it was legal.

To defend the federalist constitution, the politicians Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 essays designed to convince the state of New York to ratify the constitution. They claimed that the constitution, as a federalist document, limited the power of the government so that the will of the people was always stronger.

Federalism in the United States was officially defined in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, drafted in 1789. This amendment states that the federal government has no more power than what is allowed by the states or the people. In other words, the people can give the federal government direct power, or take it away. This set up a contentious debate throughout history about the power of the central government versus the states.

Up until 1865, the states had lots of individual power, with the federal government being less influential. After the Civil War broke out in 1861, however, the government took a more active role. Throughout the twentieth century, the federal government increasingly gained more direct power over the states. Events like the Depression and the World Wars pushed people towards a desire to see the government become more and more directly involved in daily policies. The federal government started regulating the economy and implementing welfare programs, expanding their practical power.

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