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

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  • 0:04 Federalism & Its Proponents
  • 1:46 Adopting a Constitution
  • 2:16 Supremacy Clause in Federalism
  • 3:00 Evolution of Federalism
  • 4:24 Federalism Today
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy C. Evans

Amy has a BA/MA Criminal Justice. Worked with youth for over 20 years in academic settings. Avid reader, history and mystery lover.

In this lesson, we are going to take a look at federalism, the form of government that the United States adopted when it was still a young country. We will seek to define this concept and explore the factors that led to its adoption.

Federalism & Its Proponents

Did you know that the United States has not always been a republic? It was initially governed by the Articles of Confederation and each state had its own autonomous government.

Federalism is the sharing of power between a national government and the states that reside within its borders, instead of one or the other having all the authority. Citizens are expected to obey the laws of the local and national government. Federalism isn't even mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, but it is implied through its articles.

Founding Father James Madison was a proponent of federalism.
Founding Father James Madison was a proponent of federalism.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 brought together some of America's leading thinkers to piece together a federal form of government. They recognized that in order for the United States to be a strong, independent nation, it needed to have a balance of powers between the states and the federal government. Founding fathers James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were among the earliest proponents of federalism. They argued for a strong central government in a series of essays called The Federalist under the pseudonym of ''Publius.'' Their opponents, the anti-federalists, wanted the majority of power to rest in the hands of the state and advocated for their position in publications signed with the nom de plume ''Brutus.''

The Constitutional Convention lasted for 100 days, but in the end, the federalist argument won the day. James Madison proposed three equal branches of government and crafted the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights. The Constitution was then debated by Congress.

Adopting a Constitution

The U.S. Constitution implies federalism.
The U.S. Constitution implies federalism.

The United States Constitution was ratified on May 29, 1790, and became the law of the land. The Constitution contains seven articles that spell out the division of powers between national and state governments. The majority of the power lies in the federal government, but the states are allowed to retain some autonomy over their local governments, so long as their local laws don't clash with federal or constitutional laws.

Supremacy Clause in Federalism

The Supremacy Clause is a key component of federalism as it says that the federal government's authority and laws take precedence over state laws. For example, say Texas made it illegal to vote until the age of 21. However, federal law and the Constitution say people can vote at 18. The federal law supersedes state law in this case, so Texas is not allowed to make this change.

The reverse can also be true. The federal law cannot interfere with state law if it is not a federal or constitutional matter. States can decide, for example, the drinking age, speed limits, and fireworks rules.

Evolution of Federalism

Federalism went through multiple phases. Dual federalism first argued that federal and state governments were partners that had equal powers. Around 1865, though, a second period maintained duality, but the federal government began to make more inroads into the sphere of state government.

Cooperative federalism (1901 to 1960) saw federal and state governments working together to address societal and economic problems occurring at all levels of government. For example, the federal government began issuing grants to states in financial need.

A short-lived form of federalism, called creative federalism, was introduced during the socially conscious, turbulent 1960s. During this phase, the federal government increased its power over the states and implemented nationwide programs to combat poverty and other social ills.

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