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The Principle of Federalism

April 13th, 2007

This is an essay that describes how federalism is supposed to work according to the standard “civics book” kind of definition. It is interesting to consider this, and then note how much the balance of power in the USA today has shifted in favor of the federal (or national) level of government in actual practice.

The principle of federalism is based on the idea that political power is shared and divided between the national government and the state governments. This federal system contrasts with unitary systems, in which ultimate political power is held by the national government, and confederal systems, in which state governments retain political sovereignty. In the United States, the Constitution establishes the initial division of powers between the national and state governments within the federal system. The Constitution (and the federal system that followed from it) was largely the result of a compromise between Federalists, who advocated the establishment of a stronger national government, and Anti-Federalists, who wanted state governments to retain more of their sovereignty. According to the Constitution, some powers, whether expressed or implied, are exercised exclusively by the national government, while other powers are reserved exclusively for the states. Still other powers are shared concurrently by both national and state governments.

This fundamental theory of federalism effectively limits the power of both national and state governments. For example, the federal government cannot exercise powers that are exclusively reserved for the states, such as conducting elections, establishing local governments, regulating commerce within a state, or establishing a state militia. Similarly, state governments cannot duplicate or interfere with exclusive national powers such as coining money, conducting foreign policy, declaring war, or admitting new states. In addition, there are certain powers that are expressly denied both national and state governments by the Constitution. For example, the federal government is prohibited from taxing exports, changing state boundaries, or violating any of the rights or liberties that are protected by the Bill of Rights. State governments are prohibited from taxing either imports or exports, entering into treaties, interfering with contractual obligations, or denying rights of due process. Neither the national nor the state governments are allowed to grant titles of nobility, permit slavery, or deny citizens the right to vote because of race or sex.


Related Links:

Part 2: The Doctrine of National Supremacy
Part 3: Which Level of Government Best Protects Individual Rights?


One Response to “The Principle of Federalism”

  1. comment number 1 by: Samantha York

    hey thanks

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