Skip to main content
Select Source:

Federalism (Issue)


Federalism is the division of powers and duties among various levels of government. In the U.S. context federalism refers to the division of powers and duties among the state governments and the federal, or national, government.

Ever since the founding of the British North American colonies in 1607, the United States struggled with federalism in five distinct phases. During the colonial era, federalism's first phase, colonial governments controlled local affairs but deferred to Britain to set policies for the whole British Empire. The question on where to draw the lines of power between a central government and the colonial/state governments arose beginning with the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, when colonists first started to question the imperial relationship with the United Kingdom, through to the era of the American Revolution (17751783). At that time, a first response was to keep governmental power as close to the people as possible, which meant leaving governmental power in the localities and transforming colonial government into state governments.

Still some central government proved necessary to carry on the war effort against Great Britain during the Revolution, and also to conduct foreign relations and to secure foreign aid. To meet this need the Second Continental Congress (an ad hoc national body) drafted the Articles of Confederation which took effect in 1781. In this second manifestation of federalism, power remained in the states which confederated themselves for limited national purposes stated in the Articles of Confederation.

A flaw developed in this scheme: the states acted in their own interests often at the expense of other states and any national interests. As a result, the Articles of Confederation seemed inadequate which led to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution in 17871788. When the first Congress met under the new Constitution in 1789, Americans experienced a new form of federalism. States retained large powers over their populations and some concurrent powers with the federal government, while the central government possessed enumerated powers to both defend itself against the states and check any excess of power in the states. Scholars describe this phase of federalism as dual federalism.

Over time, defenders of minority interests began to claim that not only did states have rights, but they were also sovereign. Southerners, in particular, argued in favor of this state sovereignty position to defend their declining numbers in the country, their lifestyle, and their form of property (slaves). Was the United States a national Union or a mere confederation of the states? Southerners answered this question by claiming to secede to form their own confederation in 1861, while Northerners and Midwesterners believed that secession from a national Union was impossible; the result was the American Civil War (18611865) and Reconstruction (18651877).

With the end of the war and the process of Reconstruction under way, the nation adopted the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution on July 9, 1868. This amendment, which marks the beginning of federalism's fourth phase, rearranged the division of powers and duties among the levels of U.S. government. With the Fourteenth Amendment national power prevailed over state power. An understanding of this form of federalism can be seen in a key U.S. Supreme Court decision that defined federalism after the Civil War, Texas v. White (1869). For a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase stated that "the Constitution in all its provisions looks to an indestructible Union composed of indestructible states." While the states would not disappear or be absorbed by the central government, neither would they be as free to set policies as prior to the war.

States played an important role in the lives of U.S. citizens up to the Great Depression (19291939). With the Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt's (19331945) New Deal to overcome the economic catastrophe of the Depression, federalism shifted into its fifth phase. National power came to dominate American lives in ways never before imagined because bureaucratic federalism emerged. In this form of federalism, Congress, federal agencies, and federal bureaus set national policies and mandates, and the states complied. The states deferred to national authority as more power shifted to the national government. This trend slowed during the 1980s and 1990s when public concern grew that the central government was too powerful and the states too weak. As a result, in the late 1990s federalism might be shifting back towards a more balanced national picture of federal power coexisting with viable and responsible state governments.

See also: Constitution (Economic Benefits of), Stamp Act, States' Rights


Hyman, Harold and William M. Wiecek. Equal Justice Under Law: Constitutional Development, 18351875. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Kelly, Alfred H., Winfred A. Harbison, and Herman Belz. The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991.

Levy, Leonard W., Kenneth L. Karst, and Dennis J. Mahoney, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1986.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Federalism (Issue)." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Federalism (Issue)." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . (December 13, 2017).

"Federalism (Issue)." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees

County American Federation of State, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), largest union of public employees in the United States. It began as a number of separate locals organized by a group of Wisconsin state employees in the early 1930s. By 1935 there were 30 locals that became a separate department within the American Federation of Government Employees. In 1936, AFSCME received its charter. By 1955, at the time of the AFL-CIO merger, the union had 100,000 members. The following year it merged with the 30,000-member Government and Civil Employees Organizing Committee. As of 1989, the union had over 1,090,000 members, excluding the 58,000 member Hospital and Health Care Employees Union which, as of 1989, became a member of both AFSCME and the Service Employees Union (SEIU).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 13, 2017).

"American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from