The origin of American Government


Chapter Three


Evolution of American Government


Federalism is dividing power between two separate governments, national and sub-divisional.  From the origin of America federalism has been a very controversial issue between the national government and the state. 


Federalism defined: a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units.


Why Federalism


Given our system of government where majority rules we must protect minorities from unjust and interested majorities.  The founders used federalism to protect liberty, dispersing power, and controlling faction. 


Current Issues

The recent emphasis on giving states more authority has had a major effect on several important public policy issues, including poverty, education, and the environment.

Poverty. President Clinton came into office in 1993 promising to "end welfare as we know it." In August 1996 he fulfilled his promise by signing a historic welfare reform bill called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The law ended the sixty-one-year guarantee of direct cash assistance to poor families with children and gave states vast new authority to run their own welfare programs with block grants from the federal government. Supporters and critics of the new law disagreed not only about its potential effect on needy citizens, but also about the states' ability to handle the problem of poverty better than the federal government.

Supporters of the welfare reform bill believed that the federal government allowed welfare to become a lifelong entitlement, rather than temporary assistance. Many Americans also argued that the national government was too inefficient and bureaucratic to properly administer programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children and that state governments deserved at least the opportunity to control welfare. They contended that states, largely free from federal regulations and more in touch with their residents, could more effectively implement their own welfare systems.

On the other hand, many lawmakers and experts contended that the federal government should always guarantee some level of financial assistance to low-income Americans. Critics asked how state governments would provide welfare during recessions, when unemployment increases the demand for financial assistance. In addition, many doubted that the states had the necessary infrastructure to provide welfare recipients with job training and child care.

The results of the 1996 welfare reform bill are still being compiled and analyzed. So far the news is encouraging. Welfare caseloads across the nation fell by 1.2 million people between August 1996 and April 1997. There have been significant reductions in the number of welfare recipients in almost every state. For example, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Massachusetts have about 25 percent fewer people on welfare than they did in 1993. Supporters of the welfare bill give credit for this caseload reduction not only to the legislation but also to reform-minded governors and innovative state experiments. Critics of the bill, however, remain skeptical of the results and say that the robust U.S. economy is more responsible for the decline in welfare rolls.

Relying on Volunteerism. Lawmakers hope that individual citizens will take more responsibility for the less fortunate—specifically those trying to get off welfare—in their own communities. In April 1997 at the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, President Clinton said that "much of the work [of America] cannot be done by government alone. The solution must be the American people through voluntary service to others." Many students and adults volunteer with local charity groups, such as soup kitchens, day care centers, and food and clothing banks. Some observers, although supportive of these efforts, warn that volunteers and charities should not be relied on too heavily to aid the poor. They worry that without some sort of government safety net, many low-income people will not be able to make ends meet during an economic downturn.

Education. Traditionally, control over public schools has rested with local school districts. Over the years, however, state governments have become involved in overseeing issues such as textbook selection, teacher certification, and equitable school funding. The federal government's role in education has historically been quite limited.

By the 1960, however, the federal government had taken on a broader role in determining policies and practices in the nation's school. Building on the federal initiatives of the Great Society programs of the 1960s, President Jimmy Carter created the U.S. Department of Education in 1979. In 1994 President Clinton signed into law Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which set out eight national education goals and provided money to help states meet them.

Supporters of strong federal involvement in public education say schools need a benchmark, such as national education standards, to evaluate educational reform. Many argue that only federal guidance will help students in poor school districts measure up to students from wealthier districts. Supporters also maintain that only the federal government has the power to implement certain policy changes in public schools nationwide, such as desegregation and equal funding for male and female extracurricular sports.

Critics of federal involvement in public schools say that state and local authorities understand better what kind of standards and practices their school districts need. Some also believe that national standards or testing will inevitably lead to a national curriculum, the contents of which may be fiercely opposed by some local school boards. Finally, critics say that increased federal involvement adds another expensive bureaucratic layer to the educational system.

Environment. Since the 1960s, millions of Americans have been concerned about the effects pollution has on public health, fish and wildlife, and the air quality in U.S. cities. In 1970, 20 million Americans gathered at Earth Day rallies, marches, and teach-ins to protest pollution and promote conservation. That same year, the federal government responded to these concerns by forming the Environmental Protection Agency and passing legislation such as the Clean Air Act, which limits air pollutants caused by cars and factories. In recent years, some members of Congress have called for a reduction in the scope of the EPA, instead favoring a more prominent role for state governments and local grassroots organizations in determining environmental guidelines for their own communities.

Some grassroots organizations try to increase awareness of environmental problems and convince elected leaders and ordinary citizens to take action against them. Two such organizations are the Sierra Club, which was founded to protect the wilderness, and the Audobon Society, which works to save animals from extinction. Earth Day promotes a host of environmental concerns. It has become a nationwide annual event that has gained the support of many individuals in communities across the country.

Recycling in Communities. Recycling has been a popular grassroots environmental activity across the nation for years. Many schools and communities have started recycling programs for glass, aluminum, newspapers, and plastics to reduce the amount of solid waste. Many environmentalists and local government officials maintain that mandatory recycling should be expanded as soon as possible, because waste sites are rapidly filling up and soon there will be no place left to safely dump trash. Supporters of recycling programs believe they are making a difference in their communities without having to rely on the government.

Communities and individuals are also using both their consumer dollars and their investment dollars to voice their environmental concerns, through boycotts, for example. A survey conducted by the Calvert Group found that 81 percent of Americans "would be more likely to invest in companies if they knew they were environmentally responsible." Some corporations, such as nuclear power and petroleum companies, are responding by becoming more "green" and reducing carbon dioxide pollution and using biodegradable industrial detergent.


The environment is one of the many causes that citizens and local governments are supporting in their communities. Many experts believe that activism on a local level is important for communities to succeed in tackling social problems. If the "devolution revolution" continues, and the federal government becomes less involved in issues such as welfare, education, crime, and the environment, state governments will have to design improved social programs. Lawmakers at all levels of government are anxious to see if the states can meet the challenges expanded powers bring.


Questions to Consider

  1. Do you think that state governments will do a better job controlling welfare? Why or why not?
  1. Do you think that the federal government should have a say in how your town's schools are run? Or do you think that local school boards should have control over what is taught and how education budgets are spent? Defend your answer.
  1. Do you think that federal regulations are necessary to protect the environment? Would state governments and grassroots organizations be able to enforce environmental guidelines on their own? Defend your answer.
  1. Do you keep track of what is going on in Washington, D.C.? Do you think that Congress and the president are aware of what is happening in your state and community? Is Washington out of touch? Defend your answer.




Timeline of Federalism in the United States



Increased nationalism. Articles of Confederation prove inadequate, creating the movement for a stronger national government. Under a new constitution, Chief Justice John Marshall and the U.S. Supreme Court broadly define national powers, although many states resist this trend.



U.S. federal system of government devised. The delegates to the constitutional convention create a new plan for government under which power is to be shared between a national government and the state governments.



U.S. Constitution takes effect. New constitution is ratified by conventions in nine of the 13 original states. The new federal government begins operations the following year.



Bill of Rights added to the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, specifically addresses the question of powers reserved to the states.



Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions passed. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson ghost-write pieces of state legislation, which argue that the states have the right to void federal legislation they judge to be unconstitutional. Madison and Jefferson are responding particularly to the Sedition Act of 1798, a federal law that made it a crime to criticize the government of the United States.



Hartford Convention. Delegates from the New England states meet in Hartford, Connecticut, where they threaten to secede from the Union over the issue of the national tariff and the ongoing war with Great Britain.



U.S. Supreme Court rules in McCulloch v. Maryland. Chief Justice John Marshall writes opinion establishing that the powers of the United States are not limited to those expressly in the Constitution, thus expanding the power of the national government.



U.S. Supreme Court rules in Gibbons v. Ogden. In another important opinion, Chief Justice Marshall broadly defines the national government's power to regulate commerce, consequently restricting the power of the states.



Theory of nullification gains ground. Picking up on the arguments contained in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, advocates of nullification describe the Union as a compact among sovereign states, and not a government of the people. They declare that the states have the ultimate authority in deciding whether the federal government has exceeded its powers.



Increased sectionalism. Regional interests are put ahead of national interests as the northern and southern states begin their political and economic arguments over slavery, tariffs, and other issues. The country begins its drift toward civil war.



Fort Hill Address. States' rights advocate John C. Calhoun advocates theory of nullification by citing Madison's language from the Virginia Resolution. The following year, the South Carolina legislature adopts an Ordinance of Nullification, declaring two hated federal tariffs null and void, and threatening to secede if the federal government attempts to collect the tariffs by force. In response, President Andrew Jackson issues the "Proclamation to the People of South Carolina," warning that such action would constitute treason against the United States.



Supreme Court adopts theory of "dual sovereignty." Under Chief Justice Roger Taney, the Court comes to view the federal and state governments as equals; their interests and "sovereignties" should be weighed against each other.



American Civil War. The northern states' victory determines that the federal government is not a compact among sovereign states. Rather, its authority flows directly from the people. However, the war does not resolve the conflict between federal and states' rights.



Revival of dual sovereignty. U.S. Supreme Court increasingly rules aginst federal authority and in favor of states' rights, particularly in cases where the federal government attempts to regulate business practices.



Roosevelt administration introduces "New Deal." The president expands federal authority to regulate the economy and provide social services, based on the federal government's constitutional right to regulate interstate commerce (Article I, section 8, paragraph 3). Although the Supreme Court initially declared Roosevelt's legislation unconstitutional, the Court reversed its position in the late 1930s.


1950s and 1960s

Revival of theory of nullification. In response to the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), southern states decry what they see as the federal government's intrusion on traditional state government rights.



Alabama passes nullification resolution. The state legislature asserts the state's right to "interpose its sovereignty" against the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown decision.



Federal troops used to ensure school desegregation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower orders federal troops to protect nine black students as they enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The governor, Orval Faubus, had earlier ordered the state's National Guard to prevent the students from enrolling. In later years, President John F. Kennedy will use federal authority to enforce desegregation orders in Mississippi and Alabama.



Johnson administration introduces "Great Society." The administration's social and economic programs, combined with the powers granted in newly enacted civil rights legislation, lead to increased federal oversight of state and local government.




Nixon administration builds on Great Society. New federal programs continue the expansion of federal power over states and localities. However, these programs are funded through federal "block grants" to the states, giving the states more discretion over spending.



Reagan administration moves to define” A New Federalism." The administration moves to limit the power of the federal government to impose its policies on state and local governments.



Debate over federal-state power sharing continues. U.S. Congress enacts legislation shifting authority and control of social, education, and economic policy to the states.



Republican Congress pursues "devolution revolution." A new Republican majority in Congress moves to hand day-to-day control of many federal programs to the states. Most important, Congress gives new authority to state governments to overhaul federally mandated programs, most notably welfare. New welfare policies use block grants to give states more discretion over spending.

Congress also adopts a law compelling the federal government to pay states for the enforcement of any new federal policies or mandates. In addition, budget considerations work to limit the growth of federal programs and initiatives affecting state and local government.