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National Supremacy: What Does It Mean?

June 26th, 2007

This is a continuation of my previous essay on the idea of federalism as it applies to the government of the USA. In this section, I deal with the doctrine of national supremacy and its implications for the United States Constitution. I also describe some of the effects that such ideas have had on our current political system.

The doctrine of national supremacy is a kind of outgrowth of federalism in the sense that it was established as a consequence of the Federalists’ success in selecting delegates who supported their views and eventually ratified the Constitution. The national supremacy principle states that all federal laws (including the Constitution itself) are superior to any conflicting state or local laws, such that the federal laws will always take precedence. This principle was established by Article 6, section 2 of the Constitution, which states that the Constitution and any laws made under the authority of the United States “shall be the supreme Law of the Land”. Since the beginning of the 20th century, this supremacy clause has been used to extend the powers of the federal government in many areas such as taxation, commerce, transportation, and environmental regulations.

National supremacy limits the power of state and local governments because it allows the federal government to use legislation combined with occasional Supreme Court rulings to preempt any state or local laws with which it is judged to be in conflict. For example, the federal civil rights laws that were enacted during the 1960s prevented states or state agencies from passing laws that discriminated against minorities. In a similar fashion, the 24th amendment to the Constitution prevented states from limiting the right to vote through the use of poll taxes. Since the era of “cooperative federalism”, the federal government has been able to use block grants or categorical grants-in-aid to control what kinds of projects that states can implement as well as how the funding is allocated. Because the states have become increasingly dependent on these federal grants, the federal government has even been able to preempt state laws that have little to do with federal funding, as was the case in the 1980s when states were coerced into raising the drinking age to 21 under the threat of losing funding for transportation projects.

Under our federal system, certain rights and liberties are protected by the states and the national government. As part of the compromise between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, the Constitution included a proposal of twelve amendments, ten of which were ratified soon after the adoption of the original Constitution. These became known as the Bill of Rights. Several of these amendments provide the protections of individual rights that are now known as civil liberties- restraints on the power of government to infringe on the personal freedom of individuals. These include such time-honored traditions as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to trial by jury, the right to privacy, and the right to keep and bear arms. Originally, only the national government (but not the state governments) protected these rights. With the passage of the 14th amendment, however, along with the various interpretations of the Bill of Rights by the Supreme Court, these protections were also applied to state governments as well, such that no state is allowed to violate the basic freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights, including the right to due process.


Related Links:

Part 1: The Principle of Federalism
Part 3: Which Level of Government Best Protects Individual Rights?


7 Responses to “National Supremacy: What Does It Mean?”

  1. comment number 1 by: bee v

    i dont like the answer it was to long

  2. comment number 2 by: alpha male

    i would just like to know a brief answere to what it means…

  3. comment number 3 by: Karlonia

    @alpha male, bee v:

    Ok, the short version would read something like this:

    National supremacy means that the federal government and its policies will always trump the state and local governments as long as the Supreme Court says that they can, and as long as the American sheeple are too clueless and apathetic to do anything about it.

    Is that better or still too long for you?

  4. comment number 4 by: Marissa

    I’m still a little curious as to what a current example of national supremacy clause would be. I’ve been wrackin’ my brain, and I’m trying to figure out if there’s been a case where a state law has been overturned by the national gov’t? Good explanation, otherwise, not too long at all.

  5. comment number 5 by: narara

    Who is the author?

  6. comment number 6 by: Karlonia

    @narara: I am the author of the article (and the site owner). Generally speaking, if there is no attribution or byline posted, then I am the original author. For articles that were written by others there will be some sort of attribution included, either in an introductory paragraph or in a statement at the bottom of the article, usually separated from the main content by a horizontal blue line.

  7. comment number 7 by: israel

    How does this effect state and local governments?

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