Federalism is a political system in which the same area is governed by at least two levels of government. In American federalism, the two levels of governance are the state level and the larger federal level. Power that is typically held by a single form of government in other systems is separated or shared between the state and federal levels. Although there are two separate sources of authority, sovereignty and American federalism are not incompatible.

Origins of American Federalism


Enlightenment thinkers heavily advanced the philosophical foundations of the American federal system. The French Philosopher Montesquieu was a strong proponent of confederalconfederal adj. of, relating to, or involving two or more nations systems. In a confederal system, states have the utility of functioning regularly with the efficiency of a smaller body. They also collectively possess security from external forces and internal abuses of power. Power is still heavily concentrated in each state rather than the federal body.1

David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, (pictured left)2 argued against Montesquieu’s confederal system in support of a federal system that was more centralized. Hume argued that representatives from each state could collectively legislate for the federation as a whole, but that the states legislatures could also overrule these representatives. This creates a situation where the federal body is powerful, but the states are not easily dismissed.3

The first attempt at a national American unification occurred under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles created a loose confederal union of independent states that were connected by an essentially powerless federal government. Because of this impractical balance, federalists looked to a new and improved system of governance under the Constitution. Under the Constitution, the power of the federal government was strengthened with necessary powers.4 The Constitution united states as well as citizens across state lines.5

Enumerated, Reserved, and Concurrent Powers

The federal government may exercise only those powers that are stated in the Constitution. Congress is bound by Article I, Section 8, which explicitly states what its powers may be. Some of these powers include regulating interstate commerce, declaring war, raising and maintaining an army and navy, and coining money. These are delegated or enumerated powers. All of these powers in particular were responses to the weak federal government of the Articles of Confederation. Although it has explicitly declared powers, the federal legislature can pass laws that it deems “necessary and proper” pursuant to the completion of its other powers through the Elastic ClauseArticle I, Section 8 "…To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.".6 The following graphic shows the distribution of powers between the federal and state governments.7


The Tenth AmendmentAmendment X: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." reaffirms the true nature of federalism in the Constitution.8 This amendment delegates any powers to the states that are not enumerated to the federal government or expressly prohibited to the states. These are reserved powers.This is generally attributed as meaning that states have police power, or the power to promote and maintain the health, safety, and morality of its people.9 This includes regulating areas, such as education.

The final category of governmental powers is concurrent power. This is a category of overlapping powers. A concurrent power is one that both the federal and state governments have. For example, both the federal government and the states have the power to levy taxes and maintain law and order within their borders.

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