Federalism and the United States Constitution

James Madison, Fourth President of the United States
James Madison, Fourth President of the United States. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-13004

Federalism is a governmental structure that allows two entities to share governmental power over the same geographical region. For example, in America individuals in Texas are governed by both state and national laws. 

On May 25. 1787, 55 delegates gathered in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention with the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. The Articles, which had been adopted on November 15, 1777 by the Continental Congress, were written just after the Americans were victorious in the Revolutionary War thus ending the tyrannical rule of the British.

So it was not surprising that the Articles provided for a weak federal government. For this very reason, Federalists, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, had a very different purpose for the Constitutional Convention – they wanted to establish a new stronger form of government for the United States. 

The thirteen original states chose 70 delegates for the Convention, but only 55 attended and participated, with Rhode Island being the only state without any representation. On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was signed by 39 delegates and this same document remains in place today, albeit with 27 amendments.

Article VII provided that the Constitution was not binding until ratified by nine of the 13 states. This ratification happened on June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document.  It was then agreed that effective March 4, 1789, the U.S. would be governed under the Constitution.

 On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island became the thirteenth state to ratify, and all of the colonies had officially joined the U.S.

One of the most important concepts that emanates from the United States Constitution is Federalism, which in 1787 was extremely innovative. Federalism arose as a means to exclude the weaknesses and hardships of both a unitary system and a confederation.


Great Britain is a unitary system, where there is a supreme, centralized national government that allows local governments to have only some power to govern.The Articles of Confederation established a confederacy where the central government was extremely weak, and the state governments were strong.

But in the U.S. system, both the federal government and the individual states share very specific powers, as delineated by the Constitution. James Madison wrote in the "Federalist Papers" that the U.S. system of government is "neither wholly national nor wholly federal."  Federalism was the result of years of being oppressed by the British and deciding that the U.S. government would be grounded on specified rights. At the same time, the founding fathers did not want to make the same mistake that had been made under the Articles of Confederation where essentially each state was sovereign and could override the laws of the Confederation.

The Anti-Federalists opposed the new Constitution, and they argued that this document not only promoted a corrupt government but that the three separate branches would compete with each other for more power and lead to a tyrannical federal government.  The Anti-Federalists also objected to the Constitution because it did not contain any freedoms or rights for individuals, which was commonplace in state constitutions at the time which were based on the Virginia model that explicitly listed the individual rights of citizens that were protected, contrary to the British constitution that did not contain any written protections.

During the ratification process, several states, led by Massachusetts, opined that the Constitution did not provide individuals the basic rights that the British had refused them – the freedom of speech, religion, and the press. In addition, these states also complained about the lack of powers to the states. In response, a concession was made that resulted in the “Bill of Rights,” the first twelve amendments to the Constitution.

The Tenth Amendment says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." It was drafted with the purpose of appeasing Anti-Federalists who feared that the U.S. Constitution would empower the federal government to have complete control over the individual states.