“Federalism is the division of power among national and local political actors,” writes Callen (2015, para.1). Adopted in 1788, federalism is the system used to govern the United States. It has been altered since its creation, by historical events as well as Supreme Court rulings; but for the most part it still serves the United States in maintaining a capable and unified nation.
Having just gained their freedom from Britain, the colonists wanted a system that would serve the people, not vice versa. The result was a federal system where national and state governments were allotted certain powers. The enumerated powers in Article I of the Constitution specify what powers the national government is allowed. Power for the states was not specified because “states held all the power at the time the Constitution was written,” according to O’Connor and Sabato (“The Federal System,” 2018), and the framers didn’t feel it necessary to restate these. Both state and national governments were accountable to the people, and the national government was allowed more strength than it had previously under the Articles of Confederation. This ensured that the state governments would not be able to gain too much power individually, which produced a weak and ineffective national government, as was evident by the chaos with the Articles. Maintaining balance between the two was not without problems, however. In the cases where state and government clashed, the Supreme Court decided the outcome.
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The Supreme Court’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) was the first of many to define the nation-state relationship. Aside from relational issues was the problem of dual-federalism, where two national governments existed with equivalent power. Such was the case at the time of the Civil War, another defining time in federalism’s history. When the war ended, former Confederates were prohibited from voting, resulting in an influx of politicians that created a “profound change in the reunited nation’s concept of federalism” (O’Connor & Sabato, “The Federal System,” 2018). The Supreme Court transferred more power to the national government to strengthen the United States after the Civil War. Dual-federalism was destroyed, and federalism gradually turned cooperative as nation, state, and local governments were obliged to work together under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The largest problems within the federal system were solved, but difficulties between nation and state continue to arise today. An example would be the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), otherwise know as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A major problem with this legislation is that “standards mandated by the law were supposed to increase school accountability on a national scale, but they are now often criticized for unfairly penalizing underperforming schools” (Resmovits, 2011, para. 1). The debate on the effectiveness of this act, among many others, continues.
Federalism was adopted by the United States to govern in a way that balanced the state and national governments. This system is far from perfect, but it has evolved dramatically to accommodate changing times. How well federalism continues to serve the people, we, as a nation, will just have to see.
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