Chapter 3: Federalism

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by Charles H. "Trey" Wilson, III

State Capitol Building in Hartford, CT. Public Domain.Federalism in the United States refers to a governmental system outlined in the Constitution in which power is distributed between the national government and the state governments. The U.S. Constitution allocates power to the national government chiefly through the enumerated powers, the implied powers, the power to tax, and the Supremacy Clause, and to the state governments through the "Reserved Powers Clause.” The nuances of federalism have evolved and changed in the U.S. as views altered over time about how power should be shared between the federal government and state governments. Political scientists routinely use labels such as "dual federalism," "cooperative federalism," "New Federalism," and “New Age Federalism” to describe the various incarnations of federalism. The future of federalism may be dynamic depending upon how the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to adjudicate cases in which the distribution of power in government is at issue.

State of Texas Capitol Building in Austin, TX. Public Domain.


Chapter 3: Federalism

I. What is Federalism
A. The term federalism means that two or more constitutionally-created governments have power over the same group of citizens.
1. Divides power between national and sub national governments (states, provinces).
B. The federal system today is seen as a compromise- balances national purposes and local group needs.
C. An American creation (more than one sovereign government) which was established to gain the support of the Anti-Federalists and was seen as a compromise between a strong central government and a confederate government (allowing a great deal of power to remain with the States).
II. Why Federalism?
A. It is still beneficial to run states in this way because States are different. States vary in:
1. Economic development, ethnic composition, religious beliefs, even physical environments—Obviously states differ in size and populations. This information makes their varying needs evident. Even cities varies greatly (i.e. comparing the North Georgia to Atlanta).
2. States vary on policy: abortion, flag burning, gun laws, the interpretation of the Constitution
3. Federalism allows you to govern many different types of groups with separate identities under one umbrella.
4. Concurrent powers are powers that are held by both the federal and the state governments.
III. Tenth Amendment (Reserved Powers Clause)
A. Basis for federalism
B. Powers not given to the national government are reserved (given) to the states (basis for states’ rights argument and state sovereignty).
C. This amendment is what empowers federalism. Remember that this was seen as a necessary amendment in order to win over the Anti-Federalists. However, due to various circumstances the power of the national government has been gained at the expense of state governments.
IV. Relations between the States
A. Full Faith and Credit Clause requires each state to respect “the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.”
B. Privileges and Immunities Clause also serves to equalize power distribution between states. is clause guarantees that citizens of one state shall be deemed to possess the same fundamental rights as citizens of all other states.
V. The Evolution of Federalism:
A. The Supremacy Period
1. McCulloch vs. Maryland (1819)
2. Gibbons vs. Ogden (1824)
B. Dual Federalism
1. Dred Scott vs. Sanford (1857)
C. Cooperative Federalism
1. Layer Cake Federalism (1789-1933): Marked by distinct layers of government that do not share power (national, state) with each “layer” sovereign in its own right.
2. The New Deal, 1933
a. Marble-Cake Federalism 1933-present
i. Marked by expansion of the power and role of the federal government during the Great Depression under FDR out of necessity.
ii. Levels of government intermingle and become indistinguishable from one another. Stresses role of the national government and decreases role of state governments.
iii. Categorical Grants are for specific purposes but the grantee has little discretion over how the funds are spent.
D. New Federalism and Beyond
1. Ronald Reagan: “New” Federalism
a. Block Grants are for broad, general purpose and allows states greater discretion over how money is spent.
2. Bill Clinton: "New Age" Federalism
a. encouraged states to explore new ideas and options for policymaking and used federal mandates when necessary
b. “Contract with America” under Republican majority
3. George W. Bush: Swell of federal power to handle crises
a. 9/11 Terror Attacks
4. Barack Obama: A new era for federalism?
a. Scholars assert that the Obama administration used a savvy combination of incentive grants and mandates (known as nuanced federalism) to gain state compliance with presidential designs.


The following videos illustrate the evolution of Federalism and the Supremacy Period through historical cases.

McCulloch vs. Maryland (1819)

Gibbons vs. Ogden (1824)

The next video illustrates the evolution of Federalism and Dual Federalism through historical cases.

Dred Scott vs. Sanford (1857)

Test Your Knowledge

How well do you understand the concepts and types of federalism? Check your understandings using the flashcards below!

Block grants


For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 4 References on page 59 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

Nixon's New Federalism 45 Years Later by Bruce Katz.

What Brand of Federalism Is Next? by Peter Harkness.
Peter Harkness is the founder of, and Publisher Emeritus.