Federalism is the system that allocates the sovereignty and powers of government between federal, state, and local entities. While not exclusive to the United States, federalism is a key component of the U.S. Constitution. It serves to strike a delicate balance between federal and state governments that was lacking under the Articles of Confederation and the colonial rule of the English government. So how did the Founders describe federalism and how has it changed since?
Although never explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, federalism appears throughout the first three articles. Article One outlines the powers and responsibilities of the legislative branch, Article Two outlines the power and responsibilities of the executive branch, and Article Three outlines the powers and responsibilities of the judicial branch. This may not sound like federalism at first, but by defining what the federal government is tasked with doing, it sets clear boundaries to protect the states and the citizens. Furthermore, the Tenth Amendment reserves all remaining powers to the states and the people.
James Madison explained this distinction in Federalist 45, saying, "Powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State." States and local governments have a better understanding of the needs of the citizens because there is a closer, more vested interest.
The idea of federalism was tested during the 19th century as the debate over slavery raged on. John C. Calhoun, a long serving member in various facets of government including the Vice Presidency, U.S. Senate, and Department of State, argued that states that disagreed with federal laws could “nullify” them as an unwritten form of checks and balances. This was taken to the nth degree when 11 southern states ultimately seceded, nullifying their compact and forming a new government. Worried that part of the problem was a strong federal government, the Confederate States of America gave more power to the states. This backfired only a few years into the Civil War as states would not send reinforcements and had competing currencies among several other problems.
Once the nation was reunited, some argued that the federal government took a stronger stance, in part to set guidelines for Reconstruction and ensure that returning states complied. That being said, the post Civil War period is often characterized as an era of laissez faire policies. The rise of big business, robber barons, and trusts actually led to a call for more federal authority in the early 20th century. That paired with the United States’ growing global presence changed the needs and priorities for Americans.
Birthed from these changes came the Progressive movement. Progressives wanted more energetic executive and legislative branches. They argued that the federal government had a better gauge of the needs of the nation moving forward so more authority was vested in the executive through new programs and initiatives. Moreover, bureaucratic agencies were formed to address numerous issues often left to state or local governments, if not private organizations. As the federal government grew, the boundaries with state authority began to corrode.
While there has been an exponential expansion of federal authority over the past 100 years, a resurgence in federalism has returned. Since spring 2020, people are becoming more acutely aware of state and local government. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election, and the growing tension over school board decisions, citizens, governors, and state legislatures are taking back some of the lost ground. Whether this trend continues is yet to be seen, but it is a step back towards what the Founders had in mind.