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What Is "Federalism," and How Is It Supposed to Work?

Federalism and the 10th Amendment
Published in March 1995 at NCCS.net by then President of NCCS, Andrew M. Allison. This is just one section of a complete article that can be found using the link above. I included the list of references for the complete article for the more diligent and studious.

Widely regarded as one of America’s most valuable contributions to political science, federalism is the constitutional division of powers between the national and state governments.

James Madison, “the father of the Constitution,” explained it this way: “The powers delegated.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, [such] as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce..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.”1 And Thomas Jefferson emphasized that the states are not “subordinate” to the national government, but rather the two are “coordinate departments of one simple and integral whole..The one is the domestic, the other the foreign branch of the same government.”2

Since governments tend to overstep the bounds of their authority, the founders knew it would be difficult to maintain a balanced federalism. In fact, that was one of the central issues raised by the state ratifying conventions as they met to decide whether to approve the new Constitution. Responding to this concern, Alexander Hamilton expressed his hope that “the people.will always take care to preserve the constitutional equilibrium between the general and the state governments.”3 He believed that “this balance between the national and state governments.forms a double security to the people. If one [government] encroaches on their rights, they will find a powerful protection in the other. Indeed, they will both be prevented from overpassing their constitutional limits by [the] certain rivalship which will ever subsist between them.”4

However, the opponents of the Constitution strongly feared that the states would eventually become subservient to the central government. Madison acknowledged that this danger existed, but he predicted that the states would band together to combat it. “Plans of resistance would be concerted,” he said. “One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations.would result from an apprehension of.federal [domination] as was produced by the dread of a foreign yoke; and.the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other.”5

Andrew M. Allison

President of NCCS

1. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (1788; New York: Mentor Books, 1961), No. 45, p. 292-93.
2. Letter to Major John Cartwright, 5 June 1824; in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson , ed. Albert Ellery Bergh, 20 vols. (Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 16:47. See also ibid., 15:328; The Federalist Papers, No. 39, p.245.
3. The Federalist Papers , No. 31, p. 197.
4. Quoted in W. Cleon Skousen, The Five Thousand Year Leap: The 28 Great Ideas That Are Changing the World (Washington: National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1985), p. 225. See also The Federalist Papers, No. 28, p. 181; and No. 51, p. 320-23.
5. The Federalist Papers , No. 46, p. 298. See also No. 26, p. 172; and No. 28, p. 181-82.
6. “Ending the Mandate Madness: A Contract to Restore State Sovereignty,” a speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., 18 November 1994; The Heritage Lectures , No. 509 (Washington, 1994), p. 3, 5.
7. Desert News , 19 May 1994, p. A3.
8. Ibid., 3 November 1993.
9. Ibid., 7 April 1994.
10. Thomas Atwood and Chris West, “Home Rule: How States Are Fighting Unfunded Federal Mandates,” State Backgrounder (Washington: Heritage Foundation, 28 December 1994), p. 1, 17; emphasis added.
11. Deseret News , 24 November 1994.
12. Atwood and West, “Home Rule,” p. 6, 8-11, 15.
13. Ibid., p. 6.
14. Ibid., p. 3, 13.
15. Deseret News , 22 December 1994.
16. Ibid., 11 February 1995, p. B3.
17. Ibid., 24 November 1994.
18. Human Events , 13 January 1995, p. 1.
19. Deseret News , 1 February 1995.


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