United States Government and Federalism

Powerful Essays
Over the last two centuries the United States has grappled with the idea of federalism. While former President James Madison had a very concrete understanding of that form of governance, “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments” (Madison, 1788, p. 67), the United States has never had a conclusive division of power between the state and the US Federal Governments. Instead of definitive spheres of governance as Madison envisioned, over the years the US Federal Government has played an increasingly important role in state matters. Beyond changes in the balance of power between the federal and state governments, federalism also forces political actors to play to multiple, and sometimes incompatible, political bases. Compared with a unitary system of government, federalism is the most effective for new states because it grants territories a level of regional autonomy, its divisions in government lead to more effective legislative policies, and federalist governments have been able to unify during times of national crisis.

Between the signing of the Constitution of the United States and the outbreak of the American Civil War, state governments exercised a large degree of independence from the US Federal Government. During this period state governments openly questioned the policies of the Federal Government, and the Federal Government fought to establish its supremacy over the states. The first conflict between the states and the federal government came with the establishment of the Bank of the United States. In response, the State of Maryland decided to tax the Bank of...

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...tionally relegated to the states to develop a national response to the economic downturn. Historical patterns of federalist government shifting towards a unitary style of governance eliminate concerns of national divisions during times of crisis.

The growth of federalism in the United States is far from the concrete divisions of power that James Madison envisioned in the 1780s. Over the years the US Federal Government has been able to gain more power over the states by the power of the purse and various other measures. At the same time, federalism has deeply impacted the political arena in the US by forcing politicians for negotiate with various power bases on every level of government. Despite its flaws a federalist system of government gives countries the flexibility and autonomy needed establish a successful nation, qualities not found in a unitary government.