Political Science



A political system that is made up of several units of local government and one unit of national government is what is referred to as federalism. This kind of political system has the ability to make decisions, which affect the activities that take place within the government. Sovereignty is usually shared such that, there are some subjects that the national government holds as supreme and others where the state governments are considered to be more supreme. However, the past twenty-five years have seen an increase in the federal mandates on both the local and state governments (Anton, 1989). This has caused a shift to be experienced in the balance of power, causing the national government to have more control over the actions of the state. The federalism system of the United States has experienced a large number of changes over the years, which have been brought on by the large number of decisions carried out by the court, in this case the Supreme Court, the congress as well as the presidential principals.


History of Federalism

The federalism system came into about when the constitution was written by its framers. It was at this point that the outline and basis for the federal system of government was set up and put in place. It entailed the division of power between the state and national governments. It brought together the individual states binding them under the national government (Gerston, 2007). The Congress and the Supreme Court of the U.S. were considered to be among the noticeable federal institutions, which took part in the national dialogue carried out at the time. Normally, federalism related cases were brought before the Supreme Court, until the congress passed a law, which was believed to encroach on the sovereignty of the state. It was not until late twentieth century that the jurisprudential pendulum took a swing in favor of the rights of the state. In order to understand better the effect that this had, it is important that several very significant cases that took place at the time be observed.

The first case was that of McCulloch v. Maryland, which took place in the year 1819. This case supported the powers that the federal system had, denying that the state governments had the right to impose taxes on banks. This in turn opened the avenue for other cases to support the extensive powers held by the federal government. The other case was that of Gibbons v. Ogden that was heard in the year 1824. The ruling for this case upheld congressional power over that of the states. It was soon after this that the theory of dual federalism was started. This era was led by a Roger Tanney. In the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, which was heard in 1856, the court decided to invalidate the Missouri Comprise, and outlawed slavery within Louisiana’s territory. This was done because the constitution of congress was intended (Gerston, 2007).

It was during this time that the decision was reached to take away all the extensive power that the national government had. This decision led to the exacerbation of the antagonism within the states therefore culminating in the Civil war. Dual federalism finally ended in the 1930s. This was later followed by the cooperative federalism. This was largely brought on by the Great depression. This ‘New Deal’ was proposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the year 1933. It was characterized by deep government activity and lasted until the year 1939 (Leach, 1970). It was from this that several other organizations such as the National Recovery Administration, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Federal Housing Association were formed. It was during this time that the national government regained its power and the Supreme Court held that the New Deal was under Congress and could therefore not regulate commerce.

Although Marble cake federalism is sometimes referred to as Cooperative federalism, it is also said to be the period that followed the Cooperative federalism era. It entailed the sharing of power by both the national government as well as the states. Federal grants were also introduced within this era, encouraging major changes to be experienced. This era carried on until the start of the 1960s when the creative federalism era was begun (Wildavsky, 1967). The year 1964 saw President Lyndon Johnson begin his renowned program known as the Great Society. This program focused on the war against poverty and in the process, it channeled a huge amount of power to both the state and local governments despite the fact that it was a national program.

New federalism came soon after, with Jimmy Carter as its key endorser. Carter was largely opposed to having a big government hence the start of the movement. However, Ronald Reagan saw to the advancement of this new era. During the time that Reagan was in power, a decline was observed in the federal aid that was received by both the local and state governments (Nagel, 2001). He made changes in the categorical grants such that grants, which allowed the states to possess more power, were blocked. At the beginning of the 1990s, the Supreme Court took the task and revisited the relationship that was present between the state as well as the federal governments. The court held that it was unconstitutional and a violation of the government’s federal structure as indicated within the tenth amendment.

In the year 1994, the Newtonian federalism was begun. It gave the national government the ability to be able to overrule an action taken by the state or local government. Power that the state held was once again taken from them and given to the national government. The Supreme Court later on held that although the congress intended to abrogate the sovereign immunity that the states held, the eleventh amendment made on the constitution prohibited the congress from taking such steps and they therefore were immune, as they could not be sued by the federal courts of law.

Several historians, scholars and commentators disagree with the decision reached by the court, therefore causing the concept of federalism to be revisited further. Some contentions have been made regarding the decisions and whether they are likely to have any lasting effects. The reason for this is that several arguments have been raised on the number of mechanisms that can be used to lessen the effects of the rulings. Among the mechanisms that can be used include the funding of studies that will prove the subject of the federal law and a touch on the commerce of other states. Once this is established, any contrary arguments can be defeated.

Amid the conflicting views held by both parties, one thing is certain there are numerous cases that are in one way or another related to federalism. Although there are times when the Supreme Court can influence the power balance that is present between the state and federal government as in the case of Forrester v New Jersey Democratic Party Inc to the extent of waning to grant certiorari, this is not always the case.

Concepts of Federalism

Despite the fact that the constitution is responsible for the setting up of the federal system of government, it does not really define what it is. However, this did not stop the constitution framers from wanting to create a national government, which could address the various shortcomings present with the confederation articles. The powers bestowed on the federal government are not considered very relevant to its authority expansion. The reason for this is that ratifications made in the constitution, only give them authority over a small area (Dye, 1990). This power reduction was later on corrected after the tenth amendment was passed, thereby reserving powers to the state, which were not specifically denied or assigned to the national government. Due to the vague manner in which the tenth amendment’s general welfare and clauses were put, both the state and federal governments can use the constitution to support their actions. It is no wonder several concepts of federalism emerged.

Dual Federalism

Dual federalism takes on the view that the federal system is made up of different layers, each entrusted with the responsibility of performing different tasks acceptable within their level. The initial ratification and framing carried out on the constitution is a true reflection of this theory (Wildavsky, 1967). Even the people, who saw the need of having a national government that was stronger, proposed that the powers given to the federal government also ought to be limited as well as distinct. However, this hypothesis leaves both the national and federal government as supreme within the boundaries of its operations. This is also known as dual sovereignty.

This theory also focuses on the rights of the state, holding that the national government should not be allowed to violate the sphere left to the state government. Contrary to this, the constitutional rights, particularly the tenth amendment would be infringed upon. This theory however does have it shortcomings. The reason for this is that it is very difficult to determine the beginning and ending of the different levels. This is evidenced today when the Supreme Court chooses to resolve dispute by using the federal structure as the national structure is considered unfavorable by the state.

Cooperative Federalism

The cooperative federalism theory emerged at the time when the federal government’s power, had greatly risen during the onset of the Great Depression. It fails to recognize the distinction present between the states and Washington’s functions, emphasizing that there are several areas where responsibilities overlap (Wildavsky, 1967). This form of overlapping of jurisdiction is usually referred to as marble-cake federalism. This kind of federalism holds a weak view when it comes to the elastic clause. It is however a very accurate model of the American federal system.


The United States system of federalism has experienced great changes over the last few centuries. Throughout the years, power has been seen to shift constantly from the national government to the state government. All these shifts were brought about by the numerous court cases, influences of the president as well as the decision that the congress made. There are four main factors, which determine the constitutional role that the federal government and the states hold (Anton, 1989). They include the provisions made in both the state and federal constitutions, which guarantee as well as limit the powers held by both governments. The others are the provisions made within the constitution itself, which provide information on the role the states are to play as part of the governmental make up and the interpretations made by a court of law in this case the Supreme Court on the provisions. Lastly, we have the unwritten and informal constitutional traditions that have evolved and are recognized by the state and federal constitution or the Supreme Court.





Anton, T. J. (1989). American federalism and public policy: How the system works. Random House Series in Political Science. New York, NY: Random House.

Dye, T. R. (1990). American Federalism: Competition among governments. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books.

Gerston, L. N. (2007). American Federalism: A concise introduction. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Leach, R. H. (1970). American Federalism. New York, NY: Norton.

Nagel, R. F. (2001). The Implosion of American Federalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wildavsky, A. B. (1967). American Federalism in Perspective. Boston: Little, Brown.


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