US Government Basics: Federalism

US Government Quick Study Guide

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What is Federalism?

As practiced in the United States, federalism is a system of government dividing power and responsibility between a centralized national government (the U.S. federal government) and the state governments.

The Articles of Confederation

Ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation served as the first constitution of the 13 original states and officially created the United States of America.

The Articles reflected the fear of the states that a central government would exercise too much power over their citizens. Indeed, the Articles specified that the states would retain their "sovereignty, freedom and independence." Most notably, the Articles of Confederation denied the U.S. Congress the power to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce and enforce laws. As a result, the Articles allowed the individual states to retain the greatest share of governmental power.

Incidents like Shays' Rebellion (1786-1787), pointed out the need for a stronger federal government eventually leading to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The present United States Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation on March 4, 1789.

The U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1788, replaced the Articles of Confederation by creating strong central government made up of three separate branches; legislative, executive and judicial.

By providing for separation of powers and a system of checks and balances, the Constitution attempts to ensure that no one branch of government assumes too much power over the others.

Separation of Powers

The legislative branch - the U.S. Congress - is comprised of two houses (a "bicameral" body), the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Both the House and Senate must approve new laws. While the legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch oversees the enforcement of all federal laws, and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) interpret the laws and ensure that they are constitutional.

Checks and Balances

Since the functions of the branches of government overlap in some areas, each branch has the latitude to limit or "check" the power of the other branches. For example:

  • Congress - the legislative branch - has the power to pass laws, but the president - the executive branch - has the power to veto them.
  • The president has the power to nominate Supreme Court justices, but they must be approved by the Senate.
  • The Supreme Court - the judicial branch - has the power to nullify laws passed by Congress - the legislative branch - by declaring them unconstitutional.
  • Congress has the power to impeach federal officials, including the president, vice president and federal judges.

The foundation for the concept of Checks and Balances was established by Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in The Federalist Papers No. 51, published on February 8, 1788.

The Bill of Rights

All ratified in 1791, the Bill of Rights includes the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights guarantees the basic freedoms and liberties of individuals, and the rights reserved to the states. The Founding Fathers crafted the Bill of Rights specifically to guard against the tyranny that can result when a central government is granted too much power.

Federalists and Anti-federalists

Led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, the Federalists supported the new Constitution and the establishment of a strong central government. Between October 1787 and May 1788, Hamilton, Madison and Jay sought to explain the new Constitution to the people through publication of The Federalist Papers in New York newspapers.Anti-federalists, championed by Thomas Jefferson, feared the proposed Constitution would give too much power to the central government and favored a form of government in which the states would retain more power.

Other Quick Study Guides

The Legislative Branch
The Legislative Process
The Executive Branch
The Judicial Branch




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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "US Government Basics: Federalism." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2016, Longley, Robert. (2016, August 23). US Government Basics: Federalism. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "US Government Basics: Federalism." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 16, 2017).