The Puzzle of Federalism

photography of bridge during nighttime
Photo by Michał Ludwiczak on

I’m going to have a bit of fun today and work to get y’all thinking. There are no set answers to the questions I’m going to pose or the conundrum I’m going to stir up. And that’s the fun of it. It’s going to make you think—really think—about where you stand on important issues like liberty, law, equality and the relationship our different levels of government have with these concepts.

Think of this post as highlighting the fact that all the amendments we just covered and the Constitutional exposition I’ve given thus far was originally intended to only apply to the federal government–with the state governments operating as their own separate countries following their unique Constitutions.

It’s important, in this time of increasing state and federal power, that we wrestle with complex concepts like federalism. Are we willing to put up with state abuse and oppression or do we feel the need to rope the federal government into state affairs for oppression.

Consider the alternative to state level oppression: federal government oppression.

Selective Incorporation

bed of california poppy flower

I published an article detailing what selective incorporation is. Go read it if you haven’t yet. It’ll set the stage for this article.

Selective incorporation is the idea that the Bill of Rights (at least some of them) now confines not only the federal government but also the state governments. In other words, while the federal government can’t make laws that would in any way infringe on your freedom of speech, now the states can’t either. This is a puzzling change and one that has dramatically strengthened federal power, especially federal court power.

And yet, the United States is a federalism, meaning there are supposed to be distinct powers held by the federal government and state governments.

With this said, here are two questions to ponder, especially given all that state governments have done over the past year as a result of the coronavirus.

One: What Is Federalism Anyway and Why Did the Founders Choose to Make the United States a Federalist Nation?

At it’s core, federalism is this: a central government with enough power to function effectively but one that does not completely dominate the states.

That’s the key right? The founders wanted a federal government that could function effectively, in contrast to the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation. But the founders still felt that liberty was best protected by the states. In other words, power that was so broken up and distributed amongst the several states would be much hard to consolidate and abuse. Thus, the federal government was created as just one piece of this vast power puzzle, and it was a piece that didn’t completely dominate the states.

Think about it. The founders were living under the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles of Confederation, there was no peace, no order, and the constant threat of complete anarchy and chaos. Since the federal government, under the Articles, was so weak, it could do little to unify the states or enforce any law, wage war, or handle international trade. Because of this, the citizens had little respect for any government, but especially the federal government. This led to constant uprisings, confusion and division about how to handle trade with foreign nations or debt, no unified means of national defense, and no national means by which to protect and stimulate personal ambition and ingenuity, to name a few. So the founders knew they had to do something different.

Important Concepts: A few important concepts you need to know in order to understand federalism


  • Sovereignty: the supreme (ultimate) authority
  • Unitary government: government where all the power resides in the federal government. Sovereignty is wholly in the hands of the national government, so that the states and localities are dependent on its will. (Wilson 2020)
  • Confederate government: government where all the power over specific jurisdictions resides in the state and local governments. In other words, states are sovereign and national government is allowed to do only that which the states permit. (Wilson 2020)
  • The founders experienced both types of government. Unitary (under the King of England) and confederate (under the Articles of Confederation) and both of these government systems suffered from major flaws. Allow the federal government to have too much power and it will abuse the power and tyrannize the citizenry; allow the states too much power and society turns into anarchy and chaos.

    So, the founders thought: why can’t we take the best aspects of both of forms of government and create our own hybrid government?

    They did just that and we now know it as federalism.

    Federalism is essentially a hybrid of unitary and confederate governments.

    In the compound Republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allocated to each subdivided among separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different government will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.

    James Madison

    The states retain most of the power when it comes to all the day to day aspects of governing, while the federal government acts as the unifying glue to country.

    Here Madison explains further:

    The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution 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, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. 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, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

    Two: What are the advantages and disadvantages to federalism?

    palm tree near body of water during sunset

    The founders knew what they were doing. They knew that America needed a stronger federal government to prevent anarchy but also knew that the federal government should be given very few powers in order to avoid potential abuse and tyranny.

    They felt that leaving a good portion of the governing power to the states and their governments would do just that. They wanted the states to have complete sovereignty over all the areas not mentioned in the Constitution as Congressional powers. This meant that, as I said in my recent post on selective incorporation, the Constitution and Bill of Rights only prevented the federal government from violating the rights laid out in the Bill of Rights.


    Their theory was, states were far better equipped to handle governing the daily lives of their citizens. Therefore, state laws, made to govern the people of the state, would be more representative of the state’s constituents. State government abuse might happen but at the state level, which is confined to that one state and less likely to last.


    If a state abused its government power too egregiously, the state would eventually suffer the consequences of that. Their citizenry would dwindle and economy would suffer, ultimately forcing the state to adopt better governing techniques. OR the citizens living in a the state who were in favor of the increased use of state government power would stay and those who found it abusive would leave.

    Let’s chew on this a bit more. The right of the states to govern their own states, apart from the federal government, was an essential part of the makeup of the Constitution. The power of the states works to counterbalance the power of the federal government and prevents any one government from getting too powerful. The founders knew that certain rights—for instance, the right to bear arms—could be violated by the state government if the state government Constitution allowed for that. Citizens who didn’t like guns or felt that gun rights were overblown, could stay there and citizens who wanted their gun rights protected by the state governments could leave that state and live in a state that was more friendly towards gun rights. Remember, the Bill of Rights originally only protected your rights (to guns in this example) from federal encroachment. Also remember that most states at the time had far more extensive Bill of Rights than the federal government, hence, such abuse at the state level was highly unlikely.

    bird s eye photography of brown rock plateau

    Basically then, the federal government was expected to protect the rights of the states at the expense of the rights of the individual if stepping in meant stepping over the federal government’s realm of sovereignty. Make sense? (Some founders would likely argue certain aspects of this point).

    So, why was it so important to our founders to preserve state rights, even at the potential expense of individual rights? And should we feel the same? This is the question isn’t it? (Think about it, they even set up an entire Congressional chamber to represent the states and their legislatures via the Senate. Prior to the 17th Amendment, all Senators were elected by the state legislatures not the popular vote of the citizens in the state).

    Imagine the federal government trying to handle and pass laws about every single, minute issue for every county and city and state? Imagine the difficulty implementing all of these laws. Better yet, imagine our country with no states, just one big mass of land and one central government. How well would that work?

    There are some flaws in federalism, namely that some rights do end up getting abused by the state governments. And that is a major problem, not to be minimized. And yet, prior to the 14th Amendment and selective incorporation, the federal government let it happen. It was not their sphere. Their Constitution confined them just as the state constitutions confined the state governments.

    But as soon as the federal government stepped into the realm of state sovereignty and began to invalidate state law, suddenly, states were at the behest and mercy of the federal government. This means that state governments and state law are nice in theory, but almost unnecessary since their laws can be completely eliminated should the federal government decide to step in and overrule them.


    But you may be thinking, “Yeah, so the state’s rights are violated, but the violations are only happening in order to protect the rights of the individual.”

    You’re right. Aren’t we glad slavery was eliminated? Aren’t we glad everyone is able to vote with no state laws that target certain groups to stop them from voting? Aren’t we glad that states don’t have a mandated religion (as some did early on!)?


    And yet…

    This is the challenge isn’t it? Abuse happens at every level of government, even local and state. Why? Because as Madison and the founders knew, men are innately selfish, ambitious and flawed.

    statue of liberty

    Since the founders knew this, they really wanted to make sure that the potential abuse was kept as far away from the government with the greatest ability and amount of power to abuse…should that government ever choose to abuse its power. And we know, at some point, any government will abuse it.

    Think about it. I remember having this discussion in one of my undergrad classes and it was riveting, so I hope it gets you all thinking as well.

    What is worse, hypothetically?

    A state limiting our gun rights, or the federal government limiting our gun rights?

    A state hindering our free speech, or the federal government hindering our free speech?

    For example: a state makes a law restricting gun rights. The citizens of that state have a few options. They can appeal to their state supreme court, move to another state or even appeal to the federal government (which is the very issue in question, isn’t it).

    But what if it’s the federal government that makes a law, upheld by the Supreme Court, restricting gun rights? To whom does a U.S. citizen turn? To whom do we appeal? (Technically the Constitution, but that’s almost a moot point if government has chosen to violate it so egregiously).

    There is no higher or more powerful source of government than our federal government, is there? Citizens can try to appeal to their state governments, but with how weak state governments have become—at the behest of the federal government—there is little the state government could do. The force and power of the federal government would win.


    If we are to follow the Constitution as originally written, the federal government should not be allowed to impose its will or Constitution on the states. And yet, there have been some rather egregious violations of individual rights by state governments that the federal government has stopped.

    There are so many other theoretical components to federalism that I could unpack here, but I think I’ve given you all enough to chew on.

    I’ll leave you with this food for thought. Should we start complaining to the federal government about the ways that our state and local governments clamped down on private businesses during the coronavirus? Should we demand more federal control at the expense of state control?

    Or should we re-evaluate how far away we’ve strayed from the founder’s principle of federalism and appreciate that it’s just the local and state governments that are clamping down, and nothing more?

    I don’t have an answer for you, but I hope I’ve given you pause and a reason to look for your own answer.

    The Liberty Belle

    3 thoughts on “The Puzzle of Federalism”

    1. Wow all this before my second cup of coffee you got my brain hurting . My first thoughts on all this. WE THE PEOPLE have gotten lazy or just flat out hate politics to the point of not being involved. That has allowed the political dogs to take over on every level from dog catcher to president. Just sayin

      1. C. McMasters Ph.D.

        Yes, it gets my brain hurting as well! And fundamentally yes, the blame should be laid at the feet of the people. We MUST know our governments’ job descriptions if we have any hope of keeping them accountable to their job descriptions. That’s what I’m fighting to do with the Liberty Belle. Spark a fire of passion in citizens by simply giving them knowledge they haven’t had and desperately need.

    2. In my opinion…

      All the states had their own bill of rights which protected the citizens from their own state trampling on their rights. It would be interesting to compare the different state’s bill of rights but they were extremely similar. The individuals states had differing “denominational” leanings which worked against cooperation between the individuals states and thus prevented a desire for an overly powerful central government. The vast majority of political leaders were Masons, which provided a framework of trust between the founders but this did not translate to the majority of citizens in each state. There was more trust between the representatives sent to the Continental Congress, because most were Masons, than the representatives in the individuals state capitals who would ultimately need to approve any constitution.

      The Continental Congress had to create a governing body that could unify the states if the nation was attacked and then coordinate a defense but not a government that could dictate to individuals states. One of the key features to accomplish this was the Federal Bill of Rights and the other was the original job description of the Senate. The original job description of the Senate was to protect State’s Rights and Individual’s Rights from the House of Representatives and the Administration. They were to prevent legislation and spending that did not benefit the state they represented and prevent the Administration/Federal Government from becoming too powerful at the expense of their state.

      Justice Marshal constructed a paradigm that inflated the job description of the Supreme Court. The founders did not include adequate checks and balances over the Supreme Court because they did not envision the Supreme Court having the role of determining what was and what was not constitutional. The progressives then destroyed the job description of the Senate by adopting the 17th amendment. The new popularly elected Senate then started transferring the state’s and people’s rights to the federal government and also placed politicians, instead of justices interested in the original intent of the constitution, to the Supreme Court. This allowed the courts to apply the Federal Bill of Rights to the states while providing for a less strict application of the Bill of Rights to the Federal Government.

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