State Government Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Jenny Homer

Jenny has masters' degrees in public health and public administration.

Why can an adult ride a motorcycle without a helmet in Florida, but not in Georgia? Because each state can make many of its own laws. Learn about the history of states' rights, the powers states have today, and the structure of state governments.

History of States' Rights

When America first became an independent country in 1776, it was made up of 13 colonies, or independent regions that would eventually become some of the states that we know today. They decided to come together to form the United States of America, and had to figure out how to divide up the responsibilities between the states and the federal government.

First, the colonies adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777, creating a pretty weak federal (central) government. But the Founding Fathers realized that the country needed a stronger central government, so they replaced the Articles of Confederation in 1787 with the Constitution we have today.

The Adoption of the U.S. Constitution, 1787
Adopting the Constitution

What Powers Do States Have?

There are certain powers that the states share with the federal government. They both can tax people, have a police force, and have a court system. Then there are other powers, like starting a war, that the Constitution gives only to the federal government. The Founding Fathers added the 10th Amendment to the Constitution to say that states have the their own powers, too. If the Constitution does not specifically give a power to the federal government, it is reserved for the states - this is why states' rights are sometimes called 'reserved powers.' States hold elections, run the school system, and write (most of) their own traffic laws. That's why state laws about wearing a motorcycle helmet are different as you move from Florida to Georgia.

President Obama voting in 2012. The states have the power to hold elections.
Obama voting 2012

Imagine a store where the manager and the employees all have their own jobs. The manager is the only one who can hire and fire employees, and employees may be in charge of stocking the shelves. These are the jobs, or powers, reserved separately for the manager and employees. But when a customer enters the store, the employees and the manager both say hello and answer any questions he or she may have. These shared duties are like the the jobs carried out by both the federal and state governments.

But what happens if a state law conflicts with a federal law? The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case on this issue in 1819 called McCulloch vs. Maryland, and decided that we should follow the federal law. So in the store example, the employees would have to follow the manager's rules.

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