The Evolution of American Federalism

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Before settling on our current federal form of government, the founders had attempted a different system known as the confederal system. In such a structure, local governments hold all the power while the central government relies on each state’s generosity for its survival. The purpose of the system was to have a weak central government for Americans were still afraid that a strong central government would succumb to corruption and become tyrannical in the same way the English Crown did.

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The drawbacks of a weak central government were that laws were difficult to pass, requiring 9 out of 13 state’s approval, and that the government had no way to enforce any of its laws.

Additionally, because of its lack of authority, the government was not allowed to tax the states and therefore unable to repay the national debt. Nevertheless, what pushed the founders to reform the government system was Shay’s rebellion in 1786 when farmers in Massachusetts protested aggressively against an imposed tax. The rebellion effectively proved the central government’s inability to put down an internal rebellion to protect the union. This event alarmed the founders who agreed on a meeting with all 13 states in Philadelphia known as the Constitutional Convention. The new form of government came to be from the Constitutional Convention. The system chosen was the federal system which gave both the central government and the local governments an equal share of power derived from the people. Both powers were meant to be independent from one another; a branch of federalism known as Dual Federalism. The new system intended for the central government to have national responsibilities such as national defense and foreign policy and for the states to have local responsibilities such as economic regulation and law enforcement.

While federalism has remained the preferred form of government of the United States, the relationship between the local and central governments has changed over the years in order to adapt to the changing times. The states had lost most of its sovereignty by transitioning from a confederate system to a federal government. Even though both local and central governments were deemed supreme under the initial Dual Federalism, the central government continued to grow in power at the expense of the state’s authority. The central government was able to reign over the states because of the enumerated powers of Congress in the Constitution. In Article 1, Section 8, Congress is invited to make all laws that it deems “necessary and proper” to carry out its duties. Additionally, the Constitution strengthens national power with the supremacy clause of Article IV. Both clauses have been used several times, one of the earliest being in 1819, the case of McCulloch v. Maryland, in which the supreme court declared that Congress had the power to charter a national bank because it was necessary and proper.

Moreover, the dispute was also about Maryland’s attempt to tax the federal bank. “The power to tax is the power to destroy;” if Maryland could destroy the bank then it means it is supreme over the central government, thus violating the supremacy clause spelled out in the Constitution. This ruling is what established the Congress’ doctrine of implied powers. The growing power of the central government in the industries, although limited only to interstate commerce, expanded in the following years. The case of Gibbons v. Ogden relied on the interpretation of the commerce clause written in the Constitution in Article 1, Section 8. Aaron Ogden had obtained an exclusive license by New York to operate steamboats along the Hudson River. He sued Thomas Gibbons who was navigating the same routes but with a license issued by the federal government. Chief Justice Marshall believed that New York did not have the right to own a monopoly on the Hudson River, so he ruled in favor of Thomas Gibbons, thus strengthening the role of the central government.

First, he declared that because navigation occurs between states it classified as interstate commerce, giving Congress the authority to regulate it. Second, because Gibbons had obtained his license from the federal government, his license trumped the New York license monopoly. The rise of power of the central government did not come without opposition. In 1798, the doctrine of nullification came about in response to President John Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts. Nullification was a state’s last resort at sovereignty; it was based on the principle of constitutionality. States rejected laws they deemed unconstitutional. This doctrine resulted in chaos a few years later when in the 1830s South Carolina, in response to President Andrew Jackson’s tariffs of 1828 and 1832, passed an Ordinance of Nullification as well as a threat to leave the union. Congress retaliated with the passage of the Force Bill in 1833 which allowed the president to use military force against state’s that challenged the central’s governments supremacy when imposing federal tariffs.

This act, along with Jackson’s compromise to lower the tariffs, ended the nullification crisis. That same year, in Baltimore, John Barron sued the city of Baltimore with the claim that they had violated the Fifth Amendment by depriving him of his property. In the case of Barron v. Baltimore, Chief Justice John Marshal ruled in favor of Baltimore because the Bill of Rights was created for Congress only, meaning that it does not apply to the states. The ruling gave the states an increased level of autonomy for they previously had always abided by the Bill of Rights. Consequently, the states sought to continue to establish their independence from Congress. The nullification crisis was a victory for the central government because it reinforced its supremacy over the states, but it also set the precedent for a bold weapon the advocates of states’ rights would use to establish their autonomy secession. Heated disputes over slavery led to tension and the pronunciation of sectionalism throughout the country that is that Americans were more loyal to their own section over the Union.

Eventually the heat boiled over with the election of Abraham Lincoln, who was openly abolitionist, in 1860. The southern states felt threatened by Congress’ growing authority so, in order to preserve their way of life, they seceded. Civil war erupted throughout the country to preserve the Union. The northern states took advantage of the absence of the southern states in order to pass a series of legislations, most of them geared towards the abolition of slavery. When the union triumphed over the Confederacy, the Confederate States were allowed to rejoin the union with the condition that they abide by the Fourteenth Amendment. This was a loss for the states because it trumped the ruling in Barron v. Baltimore by allowing the Bill of Rights to limit state power in order to protect citizen rights. To continue to protect the well-being of the American citizens, Congress attempted to enter the world of business and regulate it. Most industries had grown accustomed to the laissez-faire, or unregulated, system which led to numerous abuses of power which diminished the quality of life of workers. Most attempts at regulation were futile.

Such are the examples of United States v. E. C. Knight in 1895, where the Supreme Court declared that Congress did not have the authority to regulate manufacturing, and Pollock v. Farmer’s Loan and Trust Company that same year, where the court ruled that taxing income was unconstitutional. Consequently, the task to protect the citizens was left to the states; however, the states failed too. In 1897 the state of New York passed the Bakeshop Act, in an attempt to cap working hours. In Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court ruled the act as unconstitutional by violating the Fourteenth Amendment. Businesses continued to get their way until the Great Depression of the 1930s. The issue of unemployment, stock market crash, and reduced industrial output was so severe that, in order for the country to recover, the national and local governments had to come together.

Thus, the federal system evolved to become Cooperative Federalism. Numerous attempts to reform the business industry were rejected because of the ruling in Lochner v. New York. This was until the victory of National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel in 1935 which allowed Congress to regulate manufacturing and labor-management. Cooperative Federalism allowed for social insurance programs and social welfare, which are jointly administered and funded, to come about. Nevertheless, the power distribution in Cooperative Federalism was not balanced with Congress having majority of the power. Starting in 1969, with President Richard Nixon, the US adopted the New Federalism in which attempts are made by Congress in order to return sovereignty to the states; a process known as devolution.

The reasoning behind the tactic is that decentralization of power will enhance administrative efficiency while also reducing public spending. The New Federalism can be seen in action in cases like United States v. Lopez in 1995, in which the court ruled that Congress did not have the authority to create gun-free school zones, and in United States v. Morrison in 2000, where parts of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 were struck down because the federal government had surpassed its authority. The system of New Federalism also comes with an increase in block grants which provide states with unattached funds that can be distributed however the states see fit. The US government has experienced different waves of federalism. The reason for this fluctuation is due to the different needs of the country which vary with time. Events in the history of the US have caused the power to shift to meet the expectations and demands of the citizens. The power fluctuation has been enabled by the Supreme Court. Currently, the US is shaped by the New Federalism in an attempt to redistribute the balance of power. What happens next in the history of the US government will be shaped by the New Federalism.

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The Evolution of American Federalism. (2019, Aug 03). Retrieved from