What Is Federalism?

Federalism is the federal principle or system of government through which there are multiple governing bodies that have shared authority over an area. The United States, along with Canada, Australia, the European Union, India, etc. are all federal systems employing a modern interpretation of federalism.

American history is one of the coolest history subjects, particularly the time period during the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the Constitution. Not only did the United States gain its independence from the British monarchy, but our founding fathers also built the platform still in use by Americans to this day.

One of the most important factors in those days was the creation of federalism, but just what is federalism, and is it still around today?

“Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.” — Abraham Lincoln

What is Federalism in the Context of the United States?

Image source: Pixabay

The definition of federalism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary (found here) is: the distribution of power in an organization (such as a government) between a central authority and the constituent

In lament’s terms, Federalism in the United States of America is essentially the relationship between the federal government and the individual state governments. The history of federalism is absolutely incredible, and we still argue about federalism, even after 230 years.

Federalism in the U.S.

To understand the basis of federalism it is important to know where and why federalism came about.

As you probably already know, the United States was colonized by British subjects in 1607 (Jamestown was the first colony) as an expansion of the British empire. Now, there were also other European nations that also settled in America, but the British were the most prevalent colonizers. As time went on more and more people made the trip over to America to see the new world and to escape Britain.

“Federalism isn’t about states’ rights. It’s about dividing power to better protect individual liberty.” — Elizabeth Price Foley

There were 13 American colonies: Georgia, Massachusets, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Connecticut. These colonies all had different governing styles and systems, but the basis was pretty much the same across the board; they were ruled by a governor that was appointed by the British and voted on laws and taxes that would affect their colonies.

Over time the population in America grew and many parts of America actually became wealthier than some cities and developments in England. The problems began when Britain started imposing taxes on the colonists and the colonists weren’t allowed to have any type of say in the matter. You have probably heard the line, “no taxation without representation”, and that refers to the taxes imposed on the colonies. Relations began to strain and eventually, the Americans began a revolution to gain independence from the British.

In 1775 in Concord, Massachusets, the American Revolution began when the British tried to seize weapons and supplies, and the Americans fought back. Of course, the United States (which was not even the name used for our new country) won the Revolutionary War and now had to set about creating a new list of rules and ideas for this brand new country. Before the birth of the Constitution, we had The Articles of Confederation, our first ever set of laws and rules designed to help this infant country. Afraid of being ruled by a tyrant again, the Articles gave a whole lot of power to the individual states and the federal government had little to no power over the states. There was also no leader under the Articles of Confederation, nor was there a central governing body. Sure, there was a unicameral congress that had representatives appointed by their state, but Congress had basically no real power over the colonies.

Thus, the need arose for a total revision of the Articles of Confederation. Many people feared that because the AoC was so weak that the country itself would fail and these people who gave their lives for the Revolution would have died in vain. So, in 1787 a group of representatives began ratifying the Articles of Confederation and drafted up what is now the Constitution of the United States of America. The compromises were tough for the representatives, but one thing always remained clear; America could never have another tyrant in control.

The three branches of government were formed (executive, legislative, and the judicial) so that the power of each could be checked. Legislative makes the laws, but the executive branch can refuse them, while the judicial branch makes sure that those laws are constitutional. To get people on board with the ratification of the Constitution, many of our founding fathers wrote The Federalist Papers. where they discussed and explained the balance of power between the federal government and the individual state governments. This paper remains one of our nation’s most treasured documents because they are what helped solidify our country into the power that we have today.

“The framers of the Constitution were so clear in the federalist papers and elsewhere that they felt an independent judiciary was critical to the success of the nation.” — Sandra Day O’Connor

It was the Constitution that gave us federalism, yet there is absolutely no mention of the actual word federalism. Federalism, in the context of the United States, is a split of power between the federal government and the state governments. Nowadays we have a modified form of federalism. Congress is comprised of state representatives who are there to quite literally represent the state that elected them into office. The president does not answer to a specific state, but to the union as a whole. Our individual state governments create their own set of rules and laws that apply to their specific state, and not the nation as a whole. It is up to the states to decide what works best for their state and each state is really unique in their own laws. The laws do need to be in agreement with the federal law, however, since the federal law will override any state laws. An example of this is the issue of gay marriage. The supreme court ruled a federal law that marriage certificates have to be recognized in every state across the country, so states could no longer not recognize someone’s marriage.

Overall, federalism is part of what makes our country so great. We have a system of checks and balances and each state has its own set of rights in addition to the federal laws. Federalism is still as important today as it was in the late 1700s, and it will always be important for generations to come.