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American Federalism: Its History and Effect on us Today
-By Paul Klinger 3.20.2001-

With the revocation of the Articles of Confederation in 1789, the founding fathers created a form of government that would outlast any other government of the time and would eventually spread its influence around the world. This form of government is known as a federal system. It is a system in which both the national government and the state government share power. In some cases authority is granted to the national government while other, more local matters are handled by the states. Federalism, simply put, is the ongoing debate between the separation of powers between the states and the national government. In the federal system, three things are essential ingredients. More than one government must be able to govern the same citizens and territory as another government, each government has it's own authority and has powers that are denied the other forms, and no level of government can abolish any other. Federalism has taken many forms over the years, but we still debate the specific meaning of the division of power in government to this day.


In 1786, there was a demand for a reconsideration of the Articles of Confederation. Spurred by an economic depression, a rebellion in Massachusetts, westward expansion, state tariff conflicts, and concerns about the government's ability to support its currency, the Articles were widely criticized. During this time, a group known as the Federalists came into power. Including such members as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, this group sought a strong central government that could handle all of the issues important at the time. People then began calling for a re-drafting of the Articles. In 1787, a Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and for five months, worked on writing a new Constitution. Under this new plan, the national government was given more power in the sense that it could now control the printing and coining of money, impose and collect taxes, and regulate commerce between the states and foreign nations. In addition to outlining the role that the government could now play in the lives of the citizens, it also formed three branches to carry out the tasks: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. All three were given specific powers over the others so that no one force could grow too powerful and dominate. Under Article VI, the Constitution ensured the supremacy of the Federal laws and institutions, but under Amendment X, outlined specific rights and powers given to the people and the state governments. It was with this that the concept of Dual Federalism, the idea that the national and state governments were equal partners, got its start.


By the time the Civil War started in 1860, a few key federalist events had taken place that contributed to the secession of the Southern states from the Union. In 1798, Democratic-Republican legislatures in Kentucky and Virginia passed resolutions that supported state-emphasized federalism. What was called the doctrine of nullification stated that any state could obstruct within its boundaries the execution of federal laws that the state deemed unconstitutional. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed by Congress in order to try and preserve the union. In 1854, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional but the United States Supreme Court overturned Wisconsin's ruling. The Wisconsin legislature, noting the doctrine of nullification, declared the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the Wisconsin Court's ruling invalid. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional, thus giving more power back to the states.


This, in addition to many other things, like federalism, ultimately led to the Civil War. The war itself, though fought for several reasons, came down strictly to federalism. It was a war fought for control of the future of the country. One side sought greater power for the states and local governments, while the other wished to preserve the Union and create a bigger central government to serve the people. The South argued that the country was just a league of sovereign states that, while banded together, were nothing more than that; a association of states bound together for mutual defense, power, and economic interests. The North believed that the Union was to last forever; it was not made up of individual states, but rather the people who lived in those states and the Constitution that bound them. The Constitution prevailed, but the country was forever changed. During the course of the war, the federal government took control of many things that had before been left up to the states to decide. These things included banks and the conscription of soldiers.


In 1901, however, the manner of federalism began to change. Now, the federal government began to take more authority in developments that concerned the people, rather than policies. Under Teddy Roosevelt, the federal government began to set aside land for national parks, he began to regulate business, take action on issues, and he initiated what was called New Nationalism (1910). Through this, he sought to expand the powers of the government since in his view, the national government had become too decentralized in matters of national concern. As TR said, the national government is the steward of the people; the overabundance of governmental levels had contributed to the decline of efficiency, the rise of corruption, and the increasing selfishness of the politicians. He thought it was his view to right those wrongs by making the national government stronger so it could take a stand against the corruption. In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed an income tax, was passed. It provided a base for further government expansion as the government now had the base funds to initiate more action. During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt would use this in expanding the government in his efforts to pull us out of the depression.


When Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned for president in 1932, he promised the downtrodden nation that with his election, he would bring unto the country a New Deal that would restore the prosperity and happiness so abundant in the 1920s. He was able to soothe the fears of many with his frequent radio addresses to the nation. He also created many relief and welfare programs during his four-term stay in the White House. Though when his actions are looked at in the abstract, his entire program was in itself a manifestation of the federalist debate. There were some in the country who thought that the depression would fizzle out, that it would just go away if the government left it alone. They thought that if we had a small government that adhered to the lassiez-faire economic policy, things would be better again. FDR and his new deal were the exact opposite of that mentality. The federal government saw no growth like that during Roosevelt's years in office. To help the common person, he and those in his administration created programs like Social Security, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. He created jobs and tried to improve the overall living conditions of all Americans by expanding the role of government in their lives.


After FDR had died and his New Deal became no longer necessary, the role of federalism still took hold in the lives of the people. One prime example of this presence in the lives of the citizens would be Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It was the plan of his method to increase the role of the federal government in order to achieve desirable outcomes. Federal involvement in issues was justified so long as Congress could back it up with a legitimate reason. The Great Society plans used the smaller, local governments as pawns in order to carry out the rulings of the larger, more powerful national government. As a result, the new federal regulations and intrusions increased and therefore took more power away from the state and local governments as well as people in the private sector.


Another example that federalism is still a big part of politics today was Reagan's inaugural address to the nation in 1981. He stated that it was not the federal government that founded and established the states, but rather the states that established the national government. He thought that the states should have more say in what goes on within their borders than previous presidents. It was Reagan's plan not to more rationally manage the federal aid programs, but to restructure the government itself. He wanted a government that was small and out of the way, but still looked after the people and took care of them. George H. W. Bush carried out Reagan's plan after Reagan served his two terms.


When Bill Clinton entered office, it was both his plan and the House Republicans' plan to restructure the government so that the lower levels received more power. They also tried to increase efficiency at the higher levels of the federal government. Clinton is has been called a "New Deal" president. Based on several sources, this statement means that a "New Deal" president is a reform minded leader; he wants change and he isn't afraid to let obstacles get in his way of accomplishing goals.


Although the entire past of our country has been affected by the federalist debate, it was President Franklin Roosevelt that truly developed the current debate of federalism in this country today. He changed the government in such a way that we would never look at it the same way again. In his attempts to help the people and pull our country out of the greatest depression that it has ever seen, he created, in the public's eye, a system that, however large, would care for the common citizen. The government would look after the economy for the people, protect the people from foreign invaders, and convey the wishes of the people in the form of laws and domestic programs. Other presidents may have differed in political opinion and faced different challenges, but all share the same respect for the government as it is today. The federalist debate, however, is far from over. The states still have power even though the federal government has slowly been creeping in on the rights of the states. As this continues, federalism will continue to play a large part in our lives. What the founding fathers started with the drafting of the constitution, what Lincoln fought for, and what Roosevelt defined will shape our country for years to come.



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