Essay Federalism United States

What Is Federalism

Many countries are now moving away from other forms of government and embracing federalism. In my opinion, federal governments work well and bring about development. The best example of a country that has adopted federalism is the United States. Federalism is when power is subdivided into units. There is the central government that is left with some exclusive federal power and the unit governments that enjoy states rights. The unit states are under the central government that unites all the other small groups. Federalism is different from the other forms of government like unitary government; this has got only one dominant unit of the government, and confederation government that has units that are independent. The central building block of a federal government system is democratic rules. Each unit of power has the rights to make their rules but abide by the interest of the national government. Laws in the small unit states have to be in line with the federal constitution.

Advantages of Federalism

Federalism is best suited for large countries. This allows the federal government to divide the big area into smaller regions and have replica units of the government in the areas. This brings people close to power. People have got the right to manage the resources in their area so long as the federal government receives a certain percent of the income. This will encourage and enhance development than when the national government is left to make all the decisions. Leaders at the ground level are close to the people and will thus make policies that are relevant and important to the region. Having small units of power also helps eliminate the possibility of having a concentration of power. Some powers are devolved to the regional units and thus easing the job of the national government. The local groups also act as training grounds for the national leaders.

Disadvantages of Federalism

The main disadvantage is that citizens are ignorant. They are not keen to understand the duties of the national government and the regional government. Federalism may sometimes make it difficult to form national policies especially when it comes to allocation of funds and the utilization of resources in the regional areas. Having small units of government means having the same functions that are in the central government in the regions created. This may lead to duplication of posts and offices. This will result in the conflict of authorities.


Federalism is one of the most important and innovative concepts in the U.S. Constitution, although the word never appears there.  Federalism is the sharing of power between national and state governments.  In America, the states existed first, and they struggled to create a national government.  The U.S. Constitution is hardwired with the tensions of that struggle, and Americans still debate the proper role of the national government versus the states.  Chief Justice John Marshall, the longest-serving leader of the Supreme Court, noted that this question “is perpetually arising, and will probably continue to arise, as long as our system shall exist.”

E Pluribus Unum?

E Pluribus Unum: out of many states, one nation.  In 1776, the newly independent states acted like 13 quarreling brothers and sisters.  These “united” states had vast differences in history, geography, population, economy, and politics. Each state wanted all the powers of sovereign nations: to make treaties, receive ambassadors, coin money, regulate commerce.  But they had to give up some of those powers in order to survive on the world stage.  To that end, they agreed to the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States.  It created a “firm league of friendship” among the states, along with a legislature of very limited powers.  Congress was very weak: it could wage war and negotiate peace, but not raise taxes to pay for either.  Each state had one vote in Congress, and any changes to the Articles required unanimous consent.

After the war ended in 1783, strains in the union reemerged, and the country was in danger of falling apart.  The states could not agree on how to pay Revolutionary War soldiers, and many veterans returned home to farms saddled with debt and taxes.  In 1786-87, as part of an uprising known as Shays' Rebellion, farmers in western Massachusetts closed the courts to prevent foreclosure on their farms.  Also, the states themselves were not inclined to obey the peace treaty they had just signed with Great Britain.  As George Washington noted in 1786: “If you tell the Legislatures they have violated the treaty of peace and invaded the prerogatives of the confederacy they will laugh in your face.”  He added: “What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves.”

A More Perfect Union

Faced with the very real problems of a weak central government, Congress issued a resolution in February 1787 calling for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation.  But at the Philadelphia convention, which opened on May 25, 1787, delegates quickly began to consider an entirely new form of government, federalism, which shared power between the states and a more robust central government with truly national powers.

After four months, the delegates drastically changed the relationship among the states and created a new national government, abandoning the Articles of Confederation.  This new government had executive and judicial powers, along with expanded legislative authority.  Unlike the Confederation, states in the new legislature would not be represented equally.  Instead, big states with large populations exercised more power in Congress.  Slaveholding states were allowed to count three-fifths of their enslaved population for representation and taxation purposes.  To count slaves fully would only have increased the political power of slave states.

On September 17, 1787, the delegates approved and signed an entirely new Constitution for the United States of America.  Once approved by the people, the Constitution's federal system would create a unique solution to sharing power among the states and the national government.  Even George Washington admitted that the Constitution was not perfect, but rather--in the words of its Preamble--the next step in “a more perfect union.”

Federalism content written by Linda R. Monk, Constitutional scholar

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