What is Federalism? - Definition & Factors of U.S. Adoption

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  • 0:01 Federalism
  • 1:35 The Constitution
  • 2:54 Supremacy Clause
  • 4:20 Battle for Power
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

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

The United States government is based on federalism, with governmental power divided between several entities. This lesson explores federalism and explains the factors that led to its use in the U.S.


Have you ever noticed how many laws we have in the United States? We have laws from our federal government, our state governments and our local governments. How do we know who's in charge?

The United States government is based on federalism. Federalism is a method of government that allows two or more entities to share control over the same geographic region. Each person in the United States is subject to the laws of that city, county, state and our federal government.

In a federalist government, the power is divided between the national government and other governmental units. In the U.S., this means the power is divided between our federal government and our state and local governments.

This is different from a unitary government, where one unit holds the power. It's also different from a confederation, which is an association of independent governmental units. The Articles of Confederation originally established the United States as a confederation, where each of the states operated separately and independently from one another.

The United States Constitution set up our current federal government and replaced the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution recognizes the federal government as the highest governmental power, though it also acknowledges that the American people are subject to several different powers.

The United States Constitution

After almost a decade operating under the Articles of Confederation, the framers of our Constitution realized that the states had too much power. They felt they needed a different system. They wished to create a stronger federal government. The result was a balance of powers between the states and the federal government, with the federal government clearly in charge. This is the system of federalism we still use today.

The Constitution expressly grants broad powers to the federal government but not to the states. Instead, the Constitution stresses what the states can't do. The addition of the Bill of Rights, including the Tenth Amendment, helped temper some of this imbalance. The Tenth Amendment gave the states all powers not delegated to the national government or denied to the states. In other words, under federalism, the states get to regulate whatever is left over.

For example, Article I, Section 8, grants Congress certain powers, such as coining money and declaring war. The following section prohibits the states from such things as coining money and declaring war.

The Supremacy Clause

The Supremacy Clause is an important part of federalism. This clause is the section of the Constitution stating that the Constitution and federal laws are the 'Supreme Law of the Land.' The framers recognized the weak federal government established by the Articles of Confederation and wanted to ensure the states wouldn't ever overpower the federal government again. The Supremacy Clause is a guarantee that no laws will interfere with the goals of the Constitution.

The Supremacy Clause is found in Article VI, Section 2, where the Constitution specifies which powers the federal government has and which powers the federal government does not have. When a state law conflicts with a federal law, the Supremacy Clause operates to invalidate the state law in favor of the federal one as long as the federal law is found to be in pursuance of the Constitution.

The Supremacy Clause also means that states can't regulate, interfere with or control federal issues. This principle comes from the famous 1819 Supreme Court case of McCulloch v. Maryland. Here, the Court held that Maryland could not constitutionally tax the operations of the Bank of the United States, since that was a federal power.

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