The Evolution of American Federalism: 1787-1937

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  • 0:01 Federalism
  • 1:31 Dual Federalism
  • 2:40 Federalism and Civil War
  • 4:12 Federalism and the…
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Though federalism is written into the United States Constitution, federalism hasn't always worked the same way. It has evolved over the course of American history. This lesson takes a look at the evolution of federalism through the Great Depression.


'We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…'

Do you recognize these words? Of course you do! This is the Preamble of our United States Constitution. Remember that the Preamble tells us why the Framers wrote the Constitution and why they chose this particular form of government.

The Framers wanted to form a more centralized government while allowing the states to continue to govern most matters themselves. They also wished to prevent the national government from exercising too much power over the people. That's why the Framers developed federalism.

Federalism is a division of power between the federal government and the individual state governments. Each government has responsibilities over the matters that are best addressed at that level of government. For example, the states handle many things themselves, but the federal government handles items like our national defense and interstate commerce.

Like most concepts, federalism has evolved over the course of American history. Some important events have shaped the balance between the national and state governments so that federalism best suits the needs of the country at that time. While federalism is no less important today, it has changed substantially from its first years.

Dual Federalism

Let's take a look at federalism's early years. When the Constitution first took effect in 1788, it established a system of dual federalism. This meant that the states each have their responsibilities and the national government has its responsibilities. Under dual federalism, the responsibilities rarely overlapped. That's why this system is also sometimes referred to as 'layer cake federalism.'

Dual federalism leans on the Tenth Amendment, which states that all powers not constitutionally given to the federal government are reserved to the states. In other words, the federal government's powers are limited. Generally speaking, the national government only managed the national defense, foreign policy and interstate commerce. The states were free to manage their economic regulation, criminal law and other local matters.

This system of federalism was used for a long time. Dual federalism reigned from the time the Constitution was enacted all the way through World War II.

Federalism and the Civil War

Note, though, that federalism wasn't idle during that long period. Different historical events helped shape dual federalism. For example, the Civil War was a 'War Between the States' over slavery and concerns over federalism.

During the Civil War, several Southern states seceded, forming the Confederacy. These states argued that the state governments could legally make their own laws regarding slavery and that they didn't have to abide by federal laws on that matter. Notice that this is an argument over federalism.

Furthermore, many Southerners felt that the state governments held power over the federal government since the states created the federal government. Again, this is an argument over which system holds the most power.

Note that the Union won the war over the Confederacy. The Union's victory ended this federalism debate and further established that the federal government reigns supreme over the state governments.

A few years later, this concept was solidified through the Fourteenth Amendment, which limits state powers and protects the basic rights of citizens. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment includes the due process clause. This clause specifically limits the states' ability to deprive citizens of fundamental legal rights and expands the federal government's authority.

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