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Different conceptions

Characteristics and operational principles

Empirical and theoretical development



Federalism and its kindred terms—e.g., “federal” —are used, most broadly, to describe the mode of political organization which unites separate polities within an overarching political system so as to allow each to maintain its fundamental political integrity. Federal systems do this by distributing power among general and constituent governments in a manner designed to protect the existence and authority of all the governments. By requiring that basic policies be made and implemented through negotiation in some form, it enables all to share in the system’s decision-making and decision-executing processes.

Different conceptions

No single definition of federalism has proved satisfactory to all students, primarily because of the difficulties in relating theoretical formulations to the evidence gathered from observing the actual operation of federal systems. Attempts at definition have also foundered on the problems of distinguishing between (1) the federal principle as a broad social concept and federalism as a narrower political device; (2) two classic but different conceptions of federalism; (3) authentically federal systems and political systems which utilize elements of the federal principle;(4) mature and emergent federal systems; and (5) federalism and “intergovernmental relations” as distinct political phenomena.

Social and political principle . Federalism, conceived in the broadest social sense, looks to the linkage of people and institutions by mutual consent, without the sacrifice of their individual identities as the ideal form of social organization. First formulated in the covenant theories of the Bible (Kaufman 1937-1948), this conception of federalism was revived by the Bible-centered “federal” theologians of seventeenth-century Britain and New England (Miller 1939), who coined the term “federal”-derived from the Latin foedus(covenant)—in 1645 to describe the system of holy and enduring covenants between God and man which lay at the foundation of their world view. This conception of federalism was given new theoretical form by nineteenth-century French and German social theorists. Closely related to the various theories of social contract, it is characterized by the desire to build society on the basis of coordina-tive rather than subordinative relationships and by the emphasis on partnership among parties with equal claims to legitimacy who seek to cultivate their diverse integrities within a common social order (Boehm 1931). [See SOCIAL CONTRACT.]

As a political device, federalism can be viewed more narrowly as a kind of political order animated by political principles that emphasize the primacy of bargaining and negotiated coordination among several power centers as a prelude to the exercise of power within a single political system, and stress the value of dispersed power centers as a means for safeguarding individual and local liberties. This means, in effect, that political institutions common to different political systems, when combined within a federal system and animated by federal principles, are effectively endowed with a distinctive character. For example, while political parties are common in modern political systems, parties animated by the federal principle show unique characteristics of fragmentation and lack of central discipline that increase the power of local groups within the system as a whole (Grodzins 1960a).

Federation and confederation . Federal ideas have been systematically conceptualized in two different ways. On the one hand, federalism has been conceived as a means to unite a people already linked by bonds of nationality through distribution of political power among the nation’s constituent units. In such cases, the polities that constitute the federal system are unalterably parts of the national whole, and federalism invariably leads to the development of a strong national government operating in direct contact with the people it serves, just as the constituent governments do. On the other hand, federalism has also been conceived as a means to unify diverse peoples for important but limited purposes, without disrupting their primary ties to the individual polities that constitute the federal system. In such cases the federal government is generally limited in its scope and powers, functioning through constituent governments which retain their plenary autonomy, and, to a substantial degree, is dependent upon them.

Both conceptions of federalism have evolved from early federal experiments. The principles of strong national federalism were first applied by the ancient Israelites, beginning in the thirteenth century B.C., to maintain their national unity through linking their several tribes under a single national constitution and at least quasi-federal political institutions (Bright 1959). Several centuries later, the Greek city-states experimented with federal-style institutions as means for the promotion of intra-national harmony and cooperation, primarily for defensive purposes, through associations (e.g., the Achaean League) that came close to what were later defined as confederations (Freeman 1863). A modified form of the Greek view was developed by the sixteenth-century theorists (Gierke 1913). They held that federalism meant a permanent league of states united through a perpetual covenant, binding under international law, in which the constituent states delegated enumerated powers to a general government while retaining full rights of internal sovereignty.

However, when the American system—the prototype of modern federal systems—emerged in the late eighteenth century, its architects developed a conception of federalism much like that of ancient Israel. From the first, American federalism functioned to serve a people with a single national identity and was constituted with a strong national government to serve that people on a national basis, though, as late as 1789, The Federalist could, describe the new American constitution as “partly national and partly federal” in deference to the then-accepted views. The successful efforts of the supporters of that constitution to appropriate the term “federalist” for their own use (Main 1961, pp. ix-xi) restored to common usage the older conception of federalism as a noncentralized national union bound by municipal law, with a general government superior to the governments of the constituent states (Diamond 1963).

Just as the American system became the prototype for other modern federal systems, so the American conception of federalism became the generally accepted one. The other conception was ultimately subsumed under the word “confederation” and its kindred terms. The two systems described by these different conceptions reflect, in part, the distinctions implied in the German Staatenbund(confederation) and Bundesstaat(federation), terms developed in the mid-nineteenth century (Mogi 1931). A certain degree of confusion remains because the terms invented to describe both systems were used indiscriminately for many years.

Though the American conception of federalism is today almost universally accepted as the most accurate usage, the confederal conception remains a living and legitimate aspect of the federal idea in its largest political sense. Today, the latter is most prominent among certain advocates of limited European union (the Common Market exemplifies a confederal form) and among many so-called world federalists. [See INTERNATIONAL INTEGRATION.]

Federalism and related systems . Federal systems are often confused with four other forms of political order which make use of specific federal principles. The use of some federal principles in multiple monarchies, legislative unions, empires, and decentralized unitary systems can have important consequences similar to those in authentically federal systems. But the fact that such principles do not permeate the four systems makes the distinctions between them and true federations extremely important.

Federal systems differ from multiple(or dual) monarchies in two essential ways. The central constitutional characteristic of the multiple monarchy is that union exists only in the person of the sovereign and is maintained only through the exercise of executive power in his name. No significant common institutions exist to unite the constituent polities—no common legislatures, no common legal system, and little in the way of a common political substructure. On the contrary, each constituent polity maintains its own political system, which the monarch guarantees to support under the terms of his compact with the realm. Multiple monarchies have historically been less than democratic regimes. Even where there have been tendencies toward democratization, the very fact that union exists only by virtue of the common sovereign has tended to elevate the position of the monarch to one of real power. Attempts to transfer sovereignty or the attributes of sovereignty elsewhere by their very nature stimulate the division of this kind of association of civil societies into separate polities. Thus, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was held together by the Hapsburg emperors and disintegrated when that family ceased to rule (Sharma 1953, chapter 7). The dual monarchy of Sweden and Norway ceased to function when democratic government was introduced, transferring the attributes of sovereignty from the monarch to the nation(s). In Spain, on the other hand, the inability of the Spaniards to transform a multiple monarchy into a federal system, in a locale which by nature demanded peninsular union of some sort, led to the consolidation of the constituent polities into something approximating a unitary state which remained highly unstable because of the local barriers to consolidation that could neither be accommodated nor eradicated (Elliott 1964). [See MONARCHY.]

Multiple monarchies have been transformed into stable and unified polities through legislative union. The United Kingdom is a case in point. The centrifugal tendencies of the seventeenth-century dual monarchy linking England and Scotland were finally eliminated through a legislative union of the two nations in 1707. Legislative union bears very close resemblance to federal union at several crucial points. Though designed to direct public allegiance to a single national authority, the terms of the union encourage the political system to retain certain noncentralizing elements. The government of the nation remains national rather than central in character, since it is created by a perpetual covenant which guarantees the constituent parties their boundaries, representation in the national legislature, and certain local autonomies, such as their own systems of municipal law. Legislative unions usually unite unequal polities. The centralizing tendencies induced by this are somewhat counterbalanced by the residual desire for local self-government in the constituent states. Thus, in the United Kingdom the cabinet has acquired a supremacy not foreseen in 1707, but within the framework of cabinet government Scotland has acquired a national ministry of its own with a separate administrative structure, based in Scotland, for most of its governmental programs (Milne 1957).

Federal systems also differ from empires allowing cultural home rule. Such empires have often been termed federal—in some cases because they claim to be. The Roman Empire was the classic example of this kind of political system in the ancient world, and the Soviet Union may well be its classic modern counterpart. In both cases, highly centralized political authorities possessing a virtual monopoly of power decide, for reasons of policy, to allow local populations with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds to maintain a degree of cultural home rule, provided that they remain politically subservient to the imperial regime. While this often appears to offer a substantial degree of local autonomy, its political effects are purposely kept minimal. Any local efforts to transform cultural home rule into political power are invariably met with suppressive force from the central government, even to the point of revoking cultural rights, as examples from the history of both empires reveal.

Federal systems are clearly different from decentralized unitary states, even though such states may allow local governments considerable autonomy in some ways. In such states local powers are invariably restricted to local matters, as determined by the central authorities, and are subject to national supervision, restriction, and even with drawal, though tradition may mitigate against precipitous action by the central government in areas where local privileges have been established. Still, as the English experience has shown, even powerful traditions supporting local autonomy have not stood in the way of great reconcentration of power by democratically elected parliaments when such action has been deemed necessary by a national majority.

Mature and emergent federal systems . Several recent studies (Macmahon 1955; Wheare 1946) have attempted to draw distinctions between mature and emergent federal systems. The thrust of their argument is that federalism, when used to unify separate political systems to form a new nation, and federalism, as a form of decentralized government in an established nation, encourage markedly different kinds of political behavior. In the former case, federalism serves as a means to bring tenuous unity to nations composed of highly autonomous polities, with the locus of power remaining among the constituent units. As federal systems mature, so the argument goes, power is increasingly concentrated at the center, and federalism remains only to promote a certain amount of decentralization within an otherwise highly unified political system. Wheare goes so far as to argue that federalism is a transitional phenomenon useful in promoting progressively larger polities which are then gradually discarded (in fact, if not in form) as an unnecessary encumbrance. This argument may have some validity in describing the history of nonfederal political systems which have utilized federal principles to promote national unity. For example, it can be used to describe the evolution of the United Kingdom into its present constitutional state. It cannot be applied, however, to any of the three exemplary federal systems—Canada, Switzerland, and the United States. Their national ties existed from the first, and their national governments were granted broad powers at the outset. Nor has federalism declined in importance as those nations have matured.

There are undoubtedly differences between mature and emergent federal systems, but those differences are more likely to relate to the character of conflict and negotiation between the general and constituent governments than to their relative strengths.

Federalism and intergovernmental relations . Because the study of federalism at its most immediately empirical level heavily stresses the study of intergovernmental relations, the two are often considered to be synonymous. Federalism, however, is something much more than the relationships between governmental units, involving as it does principles which are designed to establish the proper character of those relationships and which must also affect the character of other political institutions within federal systems. As already indicated, federalism concerns the way in which federal principles influence party and electoral systems in federal polities just as much as it concerns the way in which local governments relate to their regional or national ones, or to each other. Moreover, the study of intergovernmental relations exists apart from the study of federalism, since such relationships are to be found in all political systems, federal or otherwise, where there is more than one government extant within a given polity.

Characteristics and operational principles

The most useful way to attempt to understand federalism as a political phenomenon is to undertake a survey of the basic characteristics of federal systems, principles, and processes in order to understand both the manner and the direction of their development.

As a first step it seems necessary to identify the various federal systems that exist today or have existed in the past; only then can we analyze them as operating political systems. However, identifying federal systems is no simple matter, as we have just seen. The difficulties are heightened by the wide functional differences easily observed in the various political systems which call themselves federal and by the often greater operational similarities between self-styled “federal” and “unitary” systems. Contrast, for example, the political systems of Australia and the Soviet Union, Canada and Mexico, Switzerland and Yugoslavia, or compare the United States and Great Britain.

Moreover, federal systems have historically been marked by great internal distinctions between theory and practice, perhaps more so than other political systems. In the United States, the measure of the maintenance of federalism was long considered to be the degree of separation of government activities by level, because it was generally believed that such separation actually existed. In fact, American federalism from the first had been characterized by extensive intergovernmental functional collaboration within the framework of separate governmental structures (Elazar 1962). Similarly, the Canadian federal system has always been described as one in which the federal government is clearly dominant—the repository of all powers not explicitly granted to the provinces. Yet since the brief period of federal supremacy in the years immediately following confederation, the provinces have consistently gained power at federal expense (Smiley 1965). The Russian federal constitution goes so far as to grant each Soviet republic the right of secession—a patent impossibility under the realities of the Russian political system.

Nevertheless, some basic characteristics and operational principles common to all truly federal systems can be identified, and help us to define such systems. These may be divided into three essential elements and a number of supplementary ones.

Written constitution . First, the federal relationship must be established or confirmed through a perpetual covenant of union, inevitably embodied in a written constitution that outlines, among other things, the terms by which power is divided or shared in the political system and which can be altered only by extraordinary procedures [see CONSTITUTIONS AND CONSTITUTIONALISM]. Every existing federal nation possesses a written constitution, as do most of the other nations incorporating elements of the federal principle. Juridically, federal constitutions are distinctive in that they are not simply compacts between the rulers and the ruled but involve the people, the general government, and the polities constituting the federal union. Moreover, the constituent polities retain local constitution-making rights of their own.

Noncentralization . The political system must reinforce the terms of the constitution through an actual diffusion of power among a number of substantially self-sustaining centers that are generally coincident with the constituent polities established by the federal compact. Such a diffusion of power may be termed noncentralization. It differs from decentralization—the conditional diffusion of specific powers to subordinate local governments by a central government, subject to recall by unilateral decision. It is also more than devolution—the special grant of powers to a subnational unit by a central government, not normally rescindable. Non-centralization ensures that no matter how certain powers may be shared by the general and constituent government at any point in time, the authority to participate in exercising them cannot be taken away from either without mutual consent. Constituent polities in federal systems are able to participate as partners in national governmental activities and to act unilaterally with a high degree of autonomy in areas constitutionally open to them —even on crucial questions and, to a degree, in opposition to national policies, because they possess effectively irrevocable powers.

Areal division of power . A third element that appears to be essential in any federal system is the internal division of authority and power on an areal basis (Maass 1959), what in the United States has been called territorial democracy. It is theoretically possible to create a federal system whose constituent units are fixed but not territorially based. There were premodern protofedera-tions of nomadic tribes, and some observers have seen federal elements in nations constitutionally structured to accommodate social and political divisions along ethnic, religious, or even ideological lines. Nevertheless, no authentic federal system has existed without an areal basis for the federal division. Historically, when areal divisions of power have given way to divisions on the basis of functional interest, federalism has been replaced by pluralism. In modern democratic theory the argument between federalists and antifederalists has frequently revolved around the respective values of areal and functional diffusions of power. Theorists who have argued the obsolescence of federalism while endorsing the values used to justify its existence have generally based their case on the superior utility of pluralism (Mogi 1931, pp. 1059-1115). Proponents of the federal-areal division argue that the deficiencies of territorial democracy are greatly overshadowed by the neutrality of areal representation of functional interests, and they argue further that any other system devised for giving power to these interests has proved unable to cope with the complexities and changes of interest endemic in a dynamic age while certainly limiting the advantages for local differentiation inherent in the areal system.

Studies of federal systems indicate the existence of other elements that supplement the three basic ones. While all of them are not always present in every federal system, their near universality leads to the conclusion that they serve important functions in the maintenance of federalism in each. Similarly, while many of them are found individually in various kinds of political systems, it is their combination within a single system structured around the basic elements that is characteristic of federalism.

Maintaining union . Generally characteristic of modern federal systems are direct lines of communication between the public and both the general and the constituent governments, which allow the public to exert direct influence on both governments and permit them to exercise direct authority over a common citizenry. The people may (and usually do) elect representatives to all governments which serve them. All of the governments may (and usually do) administer programs so as to serve the individual citizen directly. The courts may serve both levels of government, applying the relevant laws directly.

The existence of those direct lines of communication—one of the major features distinguishing federations from leagues—is usually predicated on the existence of a sense of common nationality binding the constituent polities and peoples of federal nations together, another element requisite for the maintenance of a successful federal system. In some countries this sense has been inherited, but in most it has had to be invented. Federalism in Germany has been based on a common sense of an inherited German nationhood. In the United States, Argentina, and Australia a sense of nationhood had to be at least partly invented. National consciousness soon became second nature in those countries, since none of their constituent states ever had much more than a partially developed national consciousness of its own. Canada, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia have had to invent a sense of common nationality strong enough to embrace “nationality groups” whose intense national feelings are rooted in the constituent polities. In such newly formed federal systems as India, Malaysia, and Nigeria, the future of federalism is endangered by the absence of a common sense of nationality. Contrary to some theories, federalism has not proved to be a particularly good device for integrating diverse nationalities into a single political system unless it has been accompanied by other factors compelling integration.

Geographic necessity has been a major factor promoting the maintenance of union within federal systems, even in the face of strong pressures toward disunion. The Mississippi Valley in the United States, the Alps in Switzerland, the island character of the Australian continent, and the mountains and jungles surrounding Brazil have served as direct geographic influences promoting unity. More political than “natural,” but no less compelling geographically, have been the pressures for Canadian union generated by that country’s neighbor to the south or for the federation of the German states generated by their neighbors to the east and west.

Maintaining noncentralization . It has been well demonstrated that the constituent polities in a federal system must be fairly equal in population and wealth or at least balanced geographically or numerically in their inequalities, if noncentralization is to be maintained. The United States has been able to overcome its internal inequities because each geographic section has included both great and small states. In Canada, the ethnic differences between the two largest provinces have served to inject balance into the system. The existence of groups of cantons in different size categories has helped maintain Swiss federalism. Similar distributions exist in every other system whose federal character is not in question.

The existence of a large polity dominating smaller states with which it is nominally federated on equal terms has often been one of the major reasons for the failure of federalism. In the German federal empire of the late nineteenth century, Prussia was so obviously dominant that the other states had little opportunity to provide national leadership or even a reasonably strong hedge against the desires of its king and government. Similarly, even without the problem of the Communist party, the existence of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, which occupies three-fourths of the area and contains three-fifths of the population of the Soviet Union, would have severely crippled the possibilities of maintaining authentic federal relationships in that country.

Successful federal systems have also been characterized by the permanence of the boundaries of their constituent units. This does not mean that boundary changes cannot occur, but it does mean that as a matter of constitutional law such changes can be made only with the consent of the polities involved and that, as a matter of political policy, they are avoided except in the most extreme situations. Boundary changes have occurred in the “classic” federal systems—the United States divided Virginia during the Civil War, Canada has enlarged the boundaries of its provinces, and Switzerland has divided cantons—but they have been the exception rather than the rule, and in every case at least the formal consent of the constituent polities was given. Even in weaker federal systems, such as those of Latin America, state boundaries have tended to remain relatively secure. When boundary changes have been made, as in the postwar redrawing of Lander boundaries in West Germany to account for the diminished territory of the Federal Republic and the alteration of state lines to recognize linguistic unities in India, the essential heartlands of the polities involved have been preserved.

In a few very important cases, noncentralization is both reflected and supported through the constitutionally guaranteed existence of different systems of law in the constituent polities. Though the differences in those systems are likely to be somewhat eroded over time—the extent of their preservation varying from system to system—their continued existence as separate systems and the national mixture of laws which their existence promotes act as great bulwarks against centralization [See LEGAL SYSTEMS]. In the United States, each state’s legal system stems directly and to a certain extent uniquely from English law, while federal law occupies only an interstitial position binding the systems of the fifty states together insofar as necessary. The resulting mixture of laws keeps the administration of justice, even in federal courts, substantially noncentralized (Macmahon 1955, chapter 11). In Canada, the existence of common law and civil law systems side by side is one constitutional guarantee of French-Canadian cultural survival. Noncentralized legal systems, a particularly Anglo-American device, are often used in legislative as well as federal unions. They are rare in other political cultures and have become less common in all federal systems established since 1900. More common is the provision for modification of national legal codes by the subnational governments to meet special local needs, as in Switzerland.

The point is generally well taken that unless the constituent polities have substantial influence over the formal or informal amending process the federal character of the system is open to question. Since many constitutional changes are made without recourse to formal constitutional amendment, the position of the constituent polities must be additionally protected by a constitution designed so that any serious changes in the political order can be made only by the decision of dispersed majorities which reflect the areal division of powers. This protection, which federal theorists have argued is important for popular government as well as for federalism (Diamond 1963), is a feature of the most truly federal systems.

Noncentralization is strengthened in all federal systems by giving the constituent polities guaranteed representation in the national legislature and, often, by giving them a guaranteed role in the national political process. In some federal systems, notably those of the United States and Switzerland, the latter is guaranteed in the written constitution. In others, such as Canada and those in Latin America, certain powers of participation have been acquired and have become part of the traditional constitution.

Recent studies have shown that the existence of a noncentralized party system is perhaps the most important single element in the maintenance of federal noncentralization (Macmahon 1955). Non-centralized parties initially develop because of the constitutional arrangements of the federal compact, but once they have come into existence, they tend to be self-perpetuating and to function as decentralizing forces in their own right.

The United States and Canada provide two examples of the different forms which can be assumed by a noncentralized party system. In the United States, where party responsibility is minimal and virtually nonexistent on the national level, a two-party system has developed, with the parties actually coalitions of the several state or, in some cases, local party organizations functioning as national units only for the quadrennial presidential elections or for purposes of organizing the national Congress. Party financing and decision making are functions which are dispersed either among the state organizations or among widely divergent factions operating nationwide. In Canada, on the other hand, the parliamentary form of government, with its concomitant requirement of party responsibility, means that at the national level considerably more party cohesiveness must be maintained simply in order to gain and hold power.

The noncentralized party system in Canada has developed through a fragmentation of the parties along regional or provincial lines. The parties with nationwide bases are still divided internally along provincial lines, with each provincial organization autonomous. Individual provinces are frequently dominated by regional parties that send only a few representatives to the national legislature, adding to the fragmentation of the system. Very often, the party victorious in national elections is the one which is briefly able to expand its base to most nearly national proportions.

European-style federal systems where parliamentary government is the norm follow the Canadian model. Australia and Switzerland come closest to paralleling it, and traces of it can be found in the German Federal Republic. A more centralized variation of the same pattern exists in countries like India, in which the national government is dominated by one very large and diffuse national party which is held together nationally by personal leadership but is quite factionalized in the states where it must share the governing power with other parties.

Federal nations with less developed party systems frequently gain some of the same decentralizing effects through what the Latins call caudillismo—noncentralized personal leadership systems which diffuse power through strong local leaders operating in the constituent polities. Caudillistic noncentralization is most characteristic of Latin American federal systems but apparently exists in such new federations as Nigeria and Malaysia as well [see CAUDILLISMO].

The importance to federalism of a noncentralized party system is well illustrated by contrast with those formally federal nations dominated by one highly centralized party, such as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Mexico. In all three cases, the dominant party has operated to limit the power of the constituent polities in direct proportion to the extent of its dominance.

Ultimately, however, noncentralization is maintained to the extent that there is respect for the federal principle within each federal system. Such respect is necessarily reflected in the immediate recognition by the decision-making publics that the preservation of the constituent polities is as important as the preservation of the nation as a whole. In the words of the American Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, federalism looks to “an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States” (Texas v. White, 7 Wallace [1869]). This recognition may be based on loyalty to particular constituent polities or on an understanding of the role played by federalism in animating the political system along certain unique lines. Thus, those who value government by conciliation and partnership, with emphasis on local control, are likely to have respect for the federal principle.

Citizens of a federal nation must show that respect in two ways, by showing self-restraint and by cultivating the political art of negotiation. Federalism can exist only where there is considerable tolerance of diversity and willingness to take political action through conciliation even when the power to act unilaterally is available. The usual prerequisite to action in federal systems is the ability to build consensus rather than the power to threaten coercion. Western federal nations can furnish many examples of the exercise of national self-restraint in dealing with difficult federal problems. Even in a federal system as centralized as that of India, the constitutional right of the national government to assume control of the state governments is exercised as little as possible— notably when the communists win local elections— and is then clearly a temporary action.

The historical record indicates that the dual purpose implied in Chase’s dictum has been at least as responsible for the creation of federal systems as has the single interest in political unification. The Canadian confederation came into being not only to create a new nation out of the British North American colonies but also to give Ontario and Quebec autonomous political systems of their own. Similarly, every move toward greater union in the Swiss confederation has been made in order to preserve the independence of the cantons from both outside encroachment and revolutionary centralism (Sharma 1953, pp. 269-275). A good case can be made that similar motivations were important in the creation of Australia, Malaysia, Nigeria, and the United States.

Maintaining the federal principle . Several of the devices commonly found in federal systems serve to maintain the federal principle per se and are consequently supportive of both the national government and the constituent polities. Two of these are particularly common and important.

The maintenance of federalism requires that the nation and its constituent polities each have a substantially complete set of governing institutions of their own with the right—within limits set by the compact—to modify those institutions unilaterally. Separate legislative and administrative institutions are both necessary. This does not necessarily mean that all governmental activities must be carried out by separate institutions at each level. It is possible for the agencies of one government to serve as agents of the other by mutual agreement. But each government must have the needed institutions to function independently in the areas of its authority and the structural resources to cooperate freely with the other government’s counterpart agencies.

In this regard, the contractual sharing of public responsibilities by all governments in the system appears to be a central characteristic of federalism. Sharing, broadly conceived, includes common involvement in policy making, financing, and administration of government activities. In contemporary federal systems, it is characterized by extensive intergovernmental collaboration. Sharing can be based on highly formal arrangements or informal agreements. In federal systems, it is usually contractual in nature. The contract—politically a limited expression of the compact principle—is used in formal arrangements as a legal device to enable governments responsible to separate polities to engage in joint action while remaining independent entities. Even where government agencies cooperate without formally contracting to do so, the spirit of federalism that pervades ongoing federal systems tends to infuse the participating parties with a sense of contractual obligation.

In any federal system, it is likely that there will be continued tension between the federal government and the constituent polities over the years and that different “balances” between them will develop at different times. The existence of this tension is an integral part of the federal relationship, and its character does much to determine the future of federalism in each system. The question of federal-state relations which it produces is perennially a matter of public concern because virtually all other political issues arising in a federal system are phrased in terms of their implications for federalism. In this way federalism imposes a way of looking at problems that stands apart from the substantive issues raised by the problems themselves. This is particularly true of those issues which affect the very fabric of society. In the United States, for example, the race question is a problem of federal-state as well as Negro-white relations, and the same is true of the cultural question in Canada and the linguistic question in India.

The end product . The very terminology of federalism is characterized by a revealing ambiguity that is indicative of the end product of federal systems. The word “federalize” is used to describe the unification of “sovereign” states into a federal polity and also the permanent devolution of authority and power within a nation to subnational governments. In this ambiguity lies the essence of the federal principle—the perpetuation of both union and noncentralization.

Viewed from the top, the combination of the elements discussed above results in a federal rather than a central government—i.e., a government composed of a nationwide coalition of political institutions, some with predominantly local power bases (such as the national legislature), others with predominantly national power bases (such as the national bureaucracy). This government, whose power is thus diffused vertically and laterally, functions in cooperation with the constituent polities which it must conciliate in order to act. Decision making is characterized by heavy reliance upon negotiation and bargaining and by minimal reliance upon the exercise of force. Operations are characterized by a measure of disorder, since non-centralization breeds multiple power centers located at or cutting across all levels of government. Each of these centers seeks to keep open routes of access to the others, usually succeeding because it is in the best interests of all to maintain this kind of disorder as part of the “rules of the game.”

Viewed locally, a federal system consists of governmental inputs from different sources whose local connections normally serve to fragment local authority. However, because such a system rewards those who actively seek to reconcile the diffuse elements and bind them together for a larger purpose, local political leaders can control these inputs to a great extent. While this may not prevent the national government from exercising great power at any given time or from increasing its total power over time, it does mean that as long as the federal principle remains operative, the public can and almost invariably does limit certain kinds of national government actions or guides such actions into particular channels (often directed toward strengthening the constituent governments) by invoking the terms of the compact.

Viewed theoretically, these patterns of behavior and the arguments advanced to justify them serve to reaffirm the fundamental principles that (1) the strength of a federal polity does not stem from the power of the national government but from the authority vested in the nation as a whole; (2) both the national government and the governments of the constituent polities are possessed of delegated powers only; and (3) all governments are limited by the common national constitution.

All this should make it apparent that federalism is a form of popular government embodying elements of both republicanism and democracy. The federal structures occasionally adopted by nondem-ocratic systems must generally be’considered “window dressing” except insofar as the injection of the federal principle may serve as a democratizing force in itself. In Yugoslavia, for example, the existence of a federal superstructure has proved useful in fostering such decentralization as the Communist party leadership wished to allow and may even have played a role in stimulating decentralizing tendencies.

Empirical and theoretical development

Ancient protofederal systems . Long before the term “federal” was invented, there were political systems that embodied elements of the federal principle. The Israelite political system was probably the first example in recorded history of a union of constituent polities based on a sense of common nationality, with national and tribal political institutions and some division of functions between the two partly formalized by a written constitution. As a republic it was never able to overcome the problems of national executive leadership and succession and, after some two hundred years, revised its constitution to superimpose a limited monarchy on its federal institutions. Still, as many of the seventeenth-century federalists noted, it came closer to resembling a modern federal system than any comparable premodern nation. Its classic intellectual product, the Bible, was the first book to discuss the problems of a federal polity.

Permanent leagues of independent states united by a sense of common need but without any sense of common nationhood were found in various parts of the Greek world. They were entrusted with certain matters in the realm of foreign affairs and defense but were in every respect accountable to their member states. The classic example of this system was the Achaean League (251-146 B.C.), a protofederal system often erroneously considered to be the first federal polity (Freeman 1863). The Greeks left some descriptions of their leagues but no theoretical discussions of the league as a political system. Except for Aristotle’s criticisms, the great Greek political theorists ignored federalism as a political principle because the very idea contradicted their conception of the small, unified polis as the only basis upon which to build the good regime.

Several of the great ancient empires, notably the Persian, Hellenic, and Roman, structured their political systems around the principle of cultural home rule. Since political life was virtually inseparable from the religious and cultural aspects of society in the ancient world, imperial recognition of local constitutions offered a measure of contractual devolution of political power; however, as in more recent examples of this form of imperialism, such home rule was not a matter of local right but represented a conditional grant subject to unilateral revocation by the imperial rulers.

Medieval experiments . Elements of the federal principle are foreshadowed in medieval feudalism through its emphasis on essentially immutable contractual relationships that permanently link the contracting parties while guaranteeing their rights. However, the hierarchical character of these relationships, coupled with the lack of practical mechanisms to maintain the terms of the contracts, led to the degeneration of those elements in most feudal societies. Another movement in the direction of federalism grew out of the development of medieval commercial towns in central Europe which formed leagues for mutual defense and assistance following the Greek model. The most important development in this period was the first confederation of Swiss cantons in 1291 for mutual aid in defense of their independence. The success of this effort was in no small measure due to its connection, from the beginning, with quasi-popular government. These embryonic federal experiments all proceeded pragmatically while federal theory was confined to juridical discussions of the corporate relationships between polities in the Holy Roman Empire.

Ultimately a fusion of contractual elements from feudalism with political mechanisms from the commercial confederacies gave rise to the immediate antecedents of modern federalism. The Christian states on the Iberian Peninsula created a political system which in its most advanced stages came very close to authentic federalism. During the years of the reconquest, most of the peninsula was reorganized under the fuero system, which established local governments with relatively liberal political institutions in order to encourage resettlement. New states were formed through feudal-style contractual relationships designed to protect local rights. Three of these states joined in a quasi-federal arrangement under the crown of Aragon, each of them (plus several in Italy added later) retaining its own constitution and governing institutions as well as acquiring representation in the over-all Aragonese government. Unification of Spain under a multiple monarchy in 1469 left most of these federal elements intact for the next two and a half centuries, but the demands of the monarchy ultimately subverted them, transforming Spain into a precariously centralized state.

In the sixteenth century, certain emergent civil societies, influenced by the Reformation to return to Scripture as a political source and by the Spanish system of political organization, as well as by local necessity, began to apply federal principles for state-building purposes. The Hapsburg heirs to the Spanish crown had applied Iberian principles to the organization of their other European possessions. Their governmental reforms in the Netherlands provided an organizational basis for the federation of the United Provinces in the late sixteenth century. When that country gained its independence, it established a political system which, while unable to solve the most crucial technical problems of federalism, maintained itself in federal style for two hundred years, until Napoleon put an end to its existence, leaving a residue of noncentralization that marks the Netherlands today.

The Swiss, in the meantime, were developing their own techniques for combining feudal and commercial elements to create a loose confederation of cantons, which was also influenced by Biblical ideas and, perhaps negatively, by contacts with Hapsburg Spain. Achieving full independence in 1648, the Swiss confederation remained loosely leagued for two centuries (except for the Napoleonic interlude), until it adopted a federal constitution in 1848.

First modern formulations . The protofederalism of the United Provinces and the Swiss cantons, coming at the outset of the age of nationalism, also stimulated the first serious efforts to formulate federal theories based on modern political ideas. Jean Bodin analyzed the possibilities of federation in light of the problem of sovereignty. Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf examined federal arrangements as aspects of international law. These theorists all treated federalism as an aspect of international law. Johannes Althusius (1603), analyzing the Dutch and Swiss constitutions, was the first to perceive that federalism was really concerned with problems of national unity. The real father of modern federal theory, he was also the first to connect federalism with popular sovereignty and to distinguish between leagues, multiple monarchies, and confederations. His retention of hierarchical principles and his emphasis on the corporate organization of society both flawed the federal character of his work and reflected the empirical roots of his analysis.

Thus the rise of the nation-state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries stimulated federal solutions to the problems of national unification. In all but a few countries on the periphery of western Europe, the application of federal principles foundered on three problems: (1) the conciliation of feudally rooted hierarchies with a system demanding fundamental social equality in order to facilitate the sharing of power; (2) the reconciliation of local autonomy with national energy in an era of political upheaval that required most nations to maintain a state of constant mobilization basically incompatible with the toleration of local differences; and (3) the problem of executive leadership and succession, which is particularly complex in federal systems and was not solved until the United States invented the elected presidency.

Modern federalism . The rise of modern imperialism also contributed to the emergence of federalism, as indicated by the works of the important prerevolutionary political theorists of the eighteenth century, e.g., Montesquieu and Adam Smith. Here, too, the Spanish experience was influential, but it remained for the British to create the requisite popular institutions in their colonization of North America and for the Biblically influenced colonists to create the theoretical justification for these institutions. The theoretical ambiguity of those quasifederal institutions led Americans to assume that their relationship to the British government was federal, while London entertained no such notion (Becker 1922). The Americans’ response to their view of the imperial system helped them develop the federal ideas they were later to use so creatively.

The founders of the United States of America can be said to have transformed and organized the principles of federalism into a practical system of government. They were able to do so partly because their nation developed without the disadvantages that plagued earlier federal systems. As a postfeudal society, the United States had no serious problem of coping with hierarchies. As a relatively isolated nation, external pressures for centralization were not present for nearly 150 years. American political inventiveness took care of the internal problems of applying the federal principle, though not without having to fight a major civil war to resolve some of them. Though the specific forms of American federalism were not widely imitated with success, its basic principles of organization were emulated by almost every other nation attempting the federal solution to the problems of popular government in a pluralistic civil society. The creation of the theoretical framework for those principles was part and parcel of the invention of federalism. Set forth in its basics in the debate over ratification of the constitution, that framework had at its core The Federalist(1787-1788), the classic formulation of the principles of modern federalism. Equally important to the evolution of federal systems, however, were the arguments of those who wished to preserve even greater state autonomy; many of these arguments were transformed into tools to promote extraconstitutional decentralization during the nineteenth century.

From the first, American contributions to federal theory—even those of the few theorists not actively involved in politics—have been rooted in the practical concerns of maintaining a federal system. Most of these contributions have, accordingly, been formulated as discussions of constitutional law. The courts, particularly the federal Supreme Court, have conducted continuing debate on the meaning and character of federalism through the medium of case law. Leading political figures, such as Gallatin, Calhoun, Lincoln, Wilson, and the Roosevelts, have made real contributions through their state papers. The pragmatic orientation of those contributions, however, has tended to obscure their more lasting theoretical importance (Anderson 1955).

The French Revolution, while stimulating the development of popular government, was essentially hostile to the spirit and institutions of federalism. Its immediate heirs tried to destroy federal institutions in western Europe in the name of democracy, and the subsequent bearers of its tradition have proved equally hostile to federal ideas— except insofar as some of them have equated federalism with decentralized government.

In the nineteenth century, several of the new Latin American nations, following the United States example and also influenced by the federal elements in the Hispanic imperial tradition, experimented with federalism, with distinctly mixed results. Even where federalism survived in theory, the instability of Latin American governments and the frequent recourse to dictatorial regimes hampered its effective operation. Even so, the three largest Latin American nations—Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico—retain federal systems of varying political significance; federal principles are also included in the political systems of Colombia and Venezuela.

In the mid-nineteenth century European politicians and political theorists, stimulated by necessity, the American example, and the very influential studies of Tocqueville (1835), turned to consider federalism as a form of democratic political organization. Though practical applications remained few, numerous works were produced, primarily in the German-speaking countries, where doctrinaire and metaphysical analyses of federalism in relation to the problems of nationalism, sovereignty, and popular consent were in vogue. The most important of these works were the theoretical formulations of Bluntschli (1849-1852), based on his observations of federal reorganization in Switzerland, and the historical studies of Gierke. In the end, federal principles were used in the unification of Germany, and Switzerland adopted a modern federal constitution. Fully federal solutions were rejected in other nations, but several adopted quasi-federal institutions to meet particular problems of unification and decentralization.

During the late nineteenth century, British interest in imperial federalism was manifested in several ways. Canada and Australia were given federal constitutions and dominion status in 1867 and 1901, respectively, and the foundations were laid for the federal unification of India. British political theorists interested in imperial unity and internal devolution explored contemporary (Bryce 1888) and historical (Freeman 1863) federal experiments and presented arguments of their own as to the utility and proper organization of federal systems (Labillière 1894).

Whereas in the nineteenth century federalism was used to abet ethnic nationalism, in the twentieth it has been used as a means to unify multiethnic nations. Several of the ethnically heterogeneous nations created or reconstructed after World War I, including the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, formally embraced federalism as a nominal solution to their nationality problems. The United Kingdom added a federal dimension at the same time to accommodate the Irish. Extension of nation-building activities to Asia and Africa, where ethnic diversity is even greater than in Europe, has led to new efforts in the same vein. In nations outside of the totalitarian orbit, such as India and Malaysia, federalism has been used to secure political and cultural rights for the larger ethnolinguistic groups. In Africa, where the survival of separate ethnic groups has been called into question by the native nationalists, federalism has been applied in several nations, including Nigeria and Cameroon, as a device for sharing political power rather than a way to maintain cultural autonomy.

The contemporary study of federalism . The emergence of political science as a discipline in the late nineteenth century stimulated a shift from an explicitly normative to a predominantly empirical interest in federalism. Such noted British scholars as Bryce (1901) and Dicey (1885) were the first to study federalism as part of their general interest in political systems. American scholars began their work in the 1870s, as the Civil War generation was passing into history, but their first works still reflected the issues of the war. Thus Burgess (1886) concluded that the utility of the states was dissipated by modern technology, just as their power was destroyed by the war, while Wilson (1885) accepted the view that the war had wrought great changes but still saw federalism as alive and vital.

Though these men and their colleagues laid the foundations for the empirical study of federal systems with the tools of contemporary political science, federalism as a field of study was neglected for many years. The rise of other problems to attract the attention of scholars, the negation of earlier legalistic and metaphysical approaches, and the decline of normative interest in the federal principle combined to dissuade younger political scientists from examining questions of federal government, except incidentally, until the twentieth century was well advanced.

Renewed interest in the field first developed when American students of public administration found themselves confronted with problems of intergovernmental relations at nearly every turn. The study of intergovernmental relations in the administrative realm brought about significant gains in the understanding of the process of federal government, not the least of which was a growing recognition that the assumptions about federalism underlying their work, borrowed whole from nineteenth-century theorists, needed serious re-examination. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, American and British political scientists began to raise fundamental questions about the nature of federal systems and the interrelationships of their governmental components (Anderson 1946). In the 1950s these questions were expanded to include, among others, problems of political influence, the role of political parties, the historical development of federal systems, and the meaning of earlier federal theories (Bachelder&Shaw 1964). By the early 1960s, students of existing federal governments were rediscovering the need to clarify the principles of federalism in order to understand the operation of those governments. Students of comparative government were also becoming increasingly interested in problems of political integration, centralization, and decentralization—all of which stimulated new interest in the systematic study of federalism.


While many attempts to establish federal systems have ended in failure, such systems, once established, have proved to be most durable. No authentic federal system that has lasted for even 15 years has ever been abandoned except through revolutionary disruption (as in the case of Germany), and in every such case federalism—showing remarkable resilience—has ultimately been restored. Certain theories to the contrary, there is no evidence that federalism represents a transitional stage on the road to unitary government. No federal system in history has ever “evolved” into a unitary one, nor has any established system been structurally consolidated by internal decision. On the contrary, federal devices to conciliate minority populations have been used in place of force to maintain unity even in consolidated systems. Moreover, federal systems or systems strongly influenced by the federal principle have been among the most stable and long-lasting of polities.

At the same time, relatively few cultures have been able to utilize federal principles in government. Anglo-American civil societies have done so most successfully. Even those not fully committed to federalism have, without exception, included elements of the federal principle in whatever systems they have chosen, no doubt because both constitutionalism and noncentralization rate high on the scale of Anglo-American political values.

Of the 16 formally federal nations that exist in the world today, Australia, Cameroon, Canada, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, and the United States were created under British colonial tutelage. These seven include all the nations established since World War II that have been able to maintain federal systems, and they provide most of the successful examples of federalism in operation. Of the nine remaining federal nations, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico fall directly within the Hispanic political tradition and Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, though they follow the Germanic political tradition, were also influenced by Hispanic ideas at some point in their development. Both political traditions have been influential in stimulating federal inclinations in many of the nonfederal nations, but they have been notably less successful in fostering lasting federal institutions; the Hispanic tradition has failed to combine federalism and stability, while the Germanic has tended toward authoritarian centralization. (The three remaining nations, Libya, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia, are federal in name and formal structure but hardly in any meaningful sense of the term.)

The successful operation of federal systems requires a particular kind of political environment, one which is conducive to popular government and has the strong traditions of political cooperation and self-restraint that are needed to maintain a system which minimizes the use of coercion. Beyond the level of tradition, federal systems operate best in societies with sufficient homogeneity of fundamental interests—or consensus—to allow a great deal of latitude in political operations and to place primary reliance upon voluntary collaboration. The existence of severe strains on the body politic which lead to the use of force to maintain domestic order is even more inimical to the successful maintenance of federal patterns of government than of other forms of popular government. Moreover, federal systems are most successful in civil societies with the human resources to fill many public offices competently and with material resources plentiful enough to allow a measure of economic waste in payment for the luxury of liberty.

Daniel J. Elazar



Althusius, Johannes (1603) 1932 Politica methodice digesta. Edited by Carl J. Friedrich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → The first European book directed entirely to the discussion of federalism. Text in Latin with a comprehensive English introduction.

AMERICAN ACADEMY OF POLITICAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCE 1965 Intergovernmental Relations in the United States. Edited by Harry W. Reynolds, Jr. Annals, Vol. 359. Philadelphia: The Academy.

Anderson, William 1946 Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations: A Budget of Suggestions for Research. Chicago: Public Administration Service.

Anderson, William 1955 The Nation and the States: Rivals or Partners? Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press. → One of the best descriptions of the American federal system.

Aspaturian, Vernon V. 1950 The Theory and Practice of Soviet Federalism. Journal of Politics12 : 20–51.

Bacheldek, Glen L.; and SHAW, PAUL C. 1964 Federalism: A Selected Bibliography. Unpublished manuscript, Michigan State Univ., Institute for Community Development and Services.

Becker, Carl L. (1922)1958 The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: Vintage. → An important study of the origins of American federal ideas.

Birch, Anthony H. 1955 Federalism, Finance and Social Legislation in Canada, Australia, and the United States. Oxford: Clarendon.

Bluntschli, Johann K. 1849-1852 Geschichte des schweizerischen Bundesrechtes.2 vols. Zurich: Meyer & Zeller. → A theory of federal organization based on the reconstruction of the Swiss Confederation in 1848.

Boehm, Max H. 1931 Federalism. Volume 6, pages 169-172 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan. → Devoted primarily to a discussion of federalism as a social theory.

Bonduhant, Joan 1958 Regionalism vs. Provincialism: A Study in Problems of Indian National Unity. India Press Digests, Monograph Series, No. 4. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Brett, Lionel (editor) 1961 Constitutional Problems of Federalism in Nigeria. Lagos (Nigeria): Times Press.

Bright, John 1959 A History of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. → The best description of federal institutions in ancient Israel.

Bryce, James (1888) 1909 The American Commonwealth.3d ed., 2 vols. New York and London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1959 by Putnam. A classic work whose descriptions of federal-state relations follow conventional American opinions of the period.

Bryce, James 1901 Studies in History and Jurisprudence. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → Includes Bryce’s theoretical considerations of federalism.

Burgess, John W. 1886 The American Commonwealth. Political Science Quarterly1 : 9–35. → One of the earliest pronouncements on the “demise of the states” in the United States.

Canada, Royal Commission ON DOMINION-PROVINCIAL RELATIONS 1940 Report.3 vols. Ottawa: Patenaud. → Volume 1: Canada: 1867–1939. Volume 2: Recommendations. Volume 3: Documentation. The most comprehensive survey of the Canadian federal system.

CLAREMONT MEN’S COLLEGE, CLAREMONT, CALIF., INSTITUTE FOR STUDIES IN FEDERALISM 1961 Essays in Federalism, by George C. S. Benson et al. Claremont, Calif.: The College.

Codding, George A. 1961 The Federal Government of Switzerland. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cowen, Zehman 1959 Federal Jurisdiction in Australia. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Diamond, Martin 1963 The Federalist. Pages 573-593 in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (editors), History of Political Philosophy. Chicago: Rand McNally. → An important discussion of The Federalist as a major contribution to democratic political theory.

Dicey, Albert V. (1885) 1961 Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution.10th ed. With an introduction by E. C. S. Wade. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martins. → First published as Lectures Introductory to the Study of the Law of the Constitution. The classic liberal work on the British constitution that considers the questions of federalism in comparison with legislative union.

Elazar, Daniel J. 1962 The American Partnership: Intergovernmental Co-operation in the Nineteenth-century United States. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A study of the evolution of intergovernmental relations in the United States.

Elazar, Daniel J. 1966 American Federalism: A View From the States. New York: Crowell.

Elliott, John H. 1964 Imperial Spain: 1469–1716. New York: St. Martins. → Historical description of Spanish protofederal systems and their decline.

Federalism and Economic Growth in Underdeveloped Countries: A Symposium, by Ursula K. Hicks et al. 1961 New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Freeman, Edward A. (1863)1893 The History of Federal Government in Greece and Italy.2d ed. London and New York: Macmillan. → A classic attempt to trace the origins of federalism.

Gierke, Otto Von (1913) 1934 Natural Law and the Theory of Society: 1500 to 1800. Translated with an introduction by Ernst Barker. Cambridge Univ. Press. → A study of the early modern origins of federal ideas. A translation of five subsections of Volume 4 of Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht. A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Beacon.

Goldwin, Robert A. (editor) 1963 A Nation of States: Essays on the American Federal System. Chicago: Rand McNally.

GRAVES, W. BROOKE 1964 American Intergovernmental Relations: Their Origins, Historical Development, and Current Status. New York: Scribner.

Grodzins, Morton 1960a American Political Parties and the American System. Western Political Quarterly13 : 974–998. → A very important descriptive analysis of the role of a noncentralized party system in the maintenance of federalism.

Ghodzins, Morton 1960b The Federal System. Pages 265-282 in U.S. President’s Commission on National Goals, Goals for Americans. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → A comprehensive description of the American federal system.

Grodzins, Morton 1966 The American System: A New View of Government in the United States. Chicago: Rand McNally.

HAMILTON, ALEXANDER; MADISON, JAMES; and JAY, JOHN (1787-1788) 1961 The Federalist. Edited with introduction and notes by Jacob E. Cooke. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press. → The classic foundation of federal theory.

Kaufmann, Yehezkel (1937-1948) 1960 The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile. Univ. of Chicago Press. → An abridgment and translation of Toldot Hā-emūnah Hā-yisraelit. An important discussion of the origins of covenant theory in the Bible.

LabilliÈre, Francis P. DE 1894 Federal Britain: Or, Unity and Federation of the Empire. London: Low, Marston. → A compendium of studies relating to the idea of British imperial federalism.

Livingston, William S. (editor) 1963 Federalism in the Commonwealth: A Bibliographical Commentary. London: Cassell.

Maass, Arthur (editor) 1959 Area and Power: A Theory of Local Government. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → Pioneering effort to formulate theories about the areal distribution of power and its consequences.

Macmahon, Arthur W. (editor) (1955) 1962 Federalism: Mature and Emergent. New York: Russell. → An excellent collection of articles on federalism in theory and practice, with emphasis on the United States and Europe.

Main, Jackson T. 1961 The Anti-Federalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press. → A study of the movement opposed to the ratification of the American constitution.

Miller, Perry (1939) 1961 The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Boston: Beacon. → An important discussion of seventeenth-century “federal theology” and its application in the New World.

Milne, David 1957 The Scottish Office and Other Scottish Government Departments. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → A survey of the history and functions of the separate ministries for Scotland.

Mogi, Sobei 1931 The Problem of Federalism: A Study in the History of Political Theory.2 vols. London: Allen & Unwin. → Compendious historical survey of the various theories of federalism.

Riker, William A. 1964 Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance. Boston: Little.

Schmidhauser, John R. 1958 The Supreme Court as Final Arbiter in Federal-State Relations: 1789–1957. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Sharma, Brij M. 1953 Federalism in Theory and Practice.2 vols. Chandausi (India): Bhargava. → One of the few comprehensive studies of federal systems throughout the world; gives special emphasis to the Indian situation.

Smiley, Donald V. 1962 The Rowell-Sirois Report, Provincial Autonomy, and Post-war Canadian Federalism. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science28 : 54–69.

Smiley, Donald V. 1965 The Two Themes of Canadian Federalism. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science31 : 80–97.

Tocqueville, Alexis De (1835) 1945 Democracy in America.2 vols. New York: Knopf. → First published in French. Paperback editions were published in 1961 by Vintage and by Schocken.

U.S. COMMISSION ON INTERGOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS 1955 A Report to the President for Transmittal to the Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. CONGRESS, HOUSE, COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS (1955) 1956 Intergovernmental Relations in the United States: A Selected Bibliography. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Wells, Roger H. 1961 The States in West German Federalism: A Study of Federal-State Relations, 1949–1960. New York: Bookman.

Wheare, Kenneth C. (1946) 1964 Federal Government.4th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Wilson, Woodrow (1885) 1961 Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics. New York: Meridian. → The classic study of a legislature-centered federal government.

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A principle of government that defines the relationship between the central government at the national level and its constituent units at the regional, state, or local levels. Under this principle of government, power and authority is allocated between the national and local governmental units, such that each unit is delegated a sphere of power and authority only it can exercise, while other powers must be shared.

The term federalism is derived from the Latin root foedus, which means "formal agreement or covenant." It includes the interrelationships between the states as well as between the states and the federal government. Governance in the United States takes place at various levels and branches of government, which all take part in the decision-making process. From the U.S. Supreme Court to the smallest local government, a distribution of power allows all the entities of the system to work separately while still working together as a nation. Supreme Court justice hugo l. black wrote that federalism meant

a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate State governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways. (Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91S. Ct. 746, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669 [1971])

The Constitution lists the legislative powers of the federal government. The tenth amendment protects the residual powers of the states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Checks and Balances

In texas v. white, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 700, 19L. Ed. 227 (1868), Justice salmon chase explained the necessity for the constitutional limitations that prevent concentration of power on either the state or national level: "[T]he preservation of the States, and the maintenance of their governments, are as much within the design and care of the Constitution, as the preservation of the Union…. The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States."

The Federalist Papers: The History of Federalism

The strongest arguments for federalism were written during the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. the federalist papers, a set of 85 essays written by alexander hamilton, james madison, and john jay, were originally published in 1787 in New York under the pen name Publius. They were meant to explain the advantages of the Constitution and to persuade New York citizens to ratify it. The essays pointed out that the Constitution would allow the principle of popular sovereignty to continue and would help prevent internal dissolution and uneven distribution of power—problems that contributed to the failure of the articles of confederation.

Supreme Court Tilting Toward States' Rights?

Introduction The U.S. Constitution establishes a system of federalism that allocates power, authority, and sovereignty between the federal government at the national level and its constituent units at the state and local levels. However, nowhere in the Constitution does the word federalism appear, so the term remained undefined. Nonetheless, Articles I through III expressly delegate certain powers to the three branches of the federal government, while the tenth amendment expressly reserves to the states those powers not delegated to the federal government. The equal protection and due process Clauses of the fourteenth amendment have been interpreted to make most of the bill of rights applicable to the states, while the ninth amendment preserves for "the people" those rights not enumerated in the Constitution.

So while the term federalism is nowhere to be found in the text of the U.S. Constitution, the principles underlying this theory of government are deeply embedded throughout the national charter. The Framers left it for subsequent generations of Americans to work out the details, allowing them, in effect, to provide their own definition of federalism in what best can be described as an ongoing national dialogue. Over the last 200 plus years, Americans have carried out this dialogue by speaking to each other through their state and federal institutions and by amending the Constitution as a last resort.

The most visible federal institutions participating in this national dialogue have been the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress. Typically, cases involving federalism-related issues have come before the Supreme Court after Congress has enacted a law that a state believes encroaches on its sovereignty. Until the late twentieth century, the Supreme Court leaned heavily in favor of allocating power to Congress at the expense of state sovereignty, and not surprisingly the states often took issue. But from 1993 to 2003, the jurisprudential pendulum of the Supreme Court took a very noticeable swing back in favor of states' rights. To understand just how pronounced this swing has been, it is important to place a spate of Supreme Court cases in historical context.

The First 200 Years of Federalism in the United States In chisholm v. georgia, 2 U.S. 419, 2 Dall. 419, 1 L.Ed. 440 (U.S. 1793), the Supreme Court ruled that Article III of the federal Constitution gives the Court original jurisdiction over lawsuits between a state government and the citizens of another state, even if the state being sued does not consent. The decision generated immediate opposition from 12 states, and led to the ratification of the eleventh amendment, which gives states sovereign immunity from being sued in federal court by citizens of other states without the consent of the state being sued. Thirty-eight years later the Court again overstepped its bounds when it invalidated a Georgia state law regulating Cherokee Indian lands on the grounds that the law violated several U.S. treaties. Georgia ignored the Supreme Court's decision, and President andrew jackson, an ardent states' rights proponent, refused to deploy federal troops to enforce the Court's order. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. 1, 5 Pet. 1, 8 L.Ed. 25 (U.S. 1831).

Allocation of power to the federal government probably reached its zenith under the Supreme Court's expansive interpretation of congressional lawmaking power exercised pursuant to the commerce clause, which gives Congress authority to regulate matters affecting interstate commerce. In gibbons v. ogden, 22 U.S. 1, 6 L.Ed. 23, 9 Wheat. 1(U.S. 1824), the Supreme Court ruled that the Commerce Clause power of Congress is "supreme, unlimited, and plenary," acknowledging "no limitations, other than those prescribed in the Constitution." More than a hundred years later Congress applied this plenary power to regulate a farmer's personal consumption of his own privately grown wheat because Congress had found that the effects of such use, when aggregated with that of other farmers, would have a substantial effect on prices in the national wheat market. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had not exceeded the bounds of its authority under the Commerce Clause. Wickard v. Filburn, 317U.S. 111, 63 S.Ct. 82, 87 L.Ed. 122 (U.S. 1942).

The Supreme Court deviated from its pattern of enlarging the powers of the federal government in decisions involving race relations. In dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 19 How. 393, 15L.Ed. 691 (U.S. 1856), the Court invalidated the Missouri Compromise, a federal law that outlawed slavery in the northern Louisiana Territory, on the grounds that under the Constitution Congress was intended "to be carefully limited in its powers, and to exercise no authority beyond those expressly granted by the Constitution, or necessarily to be implied from [it]." This decision exacerbated the antagonism between the slave-holding states, the free states, and the territories, antagonism that eventually culminated in the u.s. civil war. Similarly, the Supreme Court deferred to local lawmakers in plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S.Ct. 1138, 41 L.Ed. 256(U.S. 1896), which upheld the constitutionality of jim crow laws that had created a legal regime of racial segregation in the South.

Federalism Since 1990 Beginning in the 1990s, however, the Supreme Court began revisiting the relationship between the state and federal governments on issues other than race-relations. In New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144, 112 S.Ct. 2408, 120 L.Ed.2d 120 (U.S.1992), the state of New York brought a suit challenging parts of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act. 42 U.S.C.A. § 2021e(d)(2)(C). The Supreme Court held that the act's "take title" provision, which required states either to regulate low-level radioactive waste according to congressional regulations or to take ownership of the waste, was unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that the "take title" provision was outside the authority delegated to Congress under the Constitution and that the regulation was an attempt to "compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program." Such attempts to compel state behavior, the Court said, violate the federal structure of the government as embodied in the Tenth Amendment.

Three years later the Supreme Court invalidated the Gun-Free School Zones Act in United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 115 S.Ct. 1624, 131 L.Ed.2d 626 (U.S.1995). The act had made it a federal offense for any individual to knowingly possess a firearm in a place that the individual knows or has reasonable cause to believe is a school zone. 18 U.S.C. § 922(q). Without explicitly overruling Wickard v. Filburn, the Court ruled that Congress exceeded its authority under the Commerce Clause, since possession of gun in a local school zone was not economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, substantially affect any sort of interstate commerce, and the statute contained no jurisdictional element to ensure, through a case-by-case inquiry, that possession of firearm had any concrete tie to interstate commerce.

In Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898, 117 S.Ct. 2365, 138 L.Ed.2d 914(U.S. 1997), a sheriff sought to enjoin provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Pub.L. 103-159, 107 Stat. 1536. The act established a system of national instant background checks. Local authorities were required to participate in the system by performing background checks on behalf of the federal government. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no authority under the Commerce Clause to enlist local authorities to enforce the provisions of a federal law.

That same year the Supreme Court continued chipping away at Congressional power in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 116 S.Ct. 1114, 134L.Ed.2d 252 (U.S. 1997), a case in which an Indian tribe filed suit against Florida to compel the state to negotiate under the federal Indian Gambling Regulatory Act. 25 U.S.C. § 2710(d)(7). The act required states to negotiate in good faith towards the creation of a compact between the tribe and the state allowing for certain gambling activities. States could be sued in federal court for violating the act and compelled by federal courts to comply with its mandates. The Supreme Court found that, while Congress intended to abrogate the states' sovereign immunity in the statute, the "Eleventh Amendment prohibits Congress from making the states capable of being sued in federal court."

Scholars, historians, and other commentators disagree over the long-term impact of the Court's recent decisions that revisit the concept of federalism. New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse responded to several of the federalism-related decisions by opining that "it is only a slight exaggeration to say that … the Court [is] a single vote shy of reinstalling the Articles of Confederation." Joseph Biden (D-Del.) took to the Senate floor to proclaim that "the imperialist course upon which the Court has embarked constitutes a danger to our established system of government."

Other commentators contend that these decisions are likely to have minimal lasting effect. Congress has at its disposal, these commentators argue, a variety of mechanisms by which it can blunt the effects of these rulings. For example, Congress can fund studies that will offer proof that the subject matter of proposed federal laws intimately touch upon interstate commerce, thereby defeating in advance any arguments to the contrary. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., other commentators have predicted that the pendulum of federalism would swing in the other direction to allow the federal government to more adequately address concerns over homeland security.

Amid these competing views over the Court's direction, one thing remains certain: each year the court is asked to review an increasing number of decisions relating in one way or another to federalism. Sometimes the Court can influence the balance of power between the state and federal governments even by declining to grant certiorari. For example, in December 2002 the Court refused to intervene after the New Jersey Supreme Court allowed Democrat Frank Lautenberg to replace U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli on the fall ballot, even though the state's legal deadline had passed. Forrester v. New Jersey Democratic Party, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 123 S.Ct. 673, 154 L. Ed. 2d 582 (2002). By declining review, the Court allowed the state leeway in interpreting its own laws. Such "federalism" issues are bound to resurface in other cases, including one that had not yet reached the court: Attorney General john ashcroft's bid to prosecute doctors assisting in suicides under Oregon law. Oregon v. Ashcroft, 192F.Supp.2d 1077 (D.Or. 2002).

further readings

"Commerce Clause: Past, Present, and Future." 2003. Arkansas Law Review 55 (winter).

"Congressional Power in the Shadow of the Rehnquist Court: Strategies for the Future." 2003. Indiana Law Journal 78 (winter-spring).

"Conservative Judicial Activism." 2002. University of Colorado Law Review 73 (fall).

"Federalism and Rights." 2002. Human Rights. 29 (fall).

"Perspectives: Federal Jurisprudence, State Autonomy." 2003. Albany Law Review 66 (spring).


States' Rights.

The key to the endurance of the Constitution, according to Madison, was that even in a democracy, the majority must not be allowed too much power; it needs to be held in check so that individual and state freedoms will be preserved. Indeed, English writer edmund burke said that in a "democracy, the majority of citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppression on the minority."

One check in the political process supported by the Constitution is provided by the Supreme Court, which is politically insulated. This check, as explained by Madison,"guarantee[s] the right of individuals, even the most obnoxious, to vote, speak and to be treated fairly and with respect and dignity." The function of the judicial branch, then, was to preserve the liberty of the citizens and the states. The principle of federalism states that the greatest danger to liberty is the majority. These rights were decided "according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, [not] by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority" (The Federalist no. 10, p. 77). Although the Supreme Court is part of the federal government, it is separate from the legislative and executive branches, and it functions as a check on the federal and state governments.

The Constitution was influenced by two major philosophies: federalism and nationalism. The federalists believed in a noncentralized government. They supported the idea of a strong national government that shared authority and power with strong state and local governments. The nationalists, or neofederalists, believed there should be a strong central government with absolute authority over the states.

When the founders were developing the Constitution, they had four goals. First, they wanted the government to be responsive to the citizens. Second, they wanted the political system to enhance, not discourage, interaction between the government and the governed. Third, they wanted the system to allow for the coexistence of political order and liberty. And finally, they wanted the system to provide a fair way of ensuring that civil justice and morality would flourish.

The Constitution as eventually ratified was labeled a bundle of compromises because it allowed for a strong central government but still conceded powers to the individual states. In The Federalist, no. 45, Madison said, "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 constitutional role of the states in the federal government is determined by four factors: (1) the provisions in the federal and state constitutions that either limit or guarantee the powers of the states in relation to the federal government; (2) the provisions in the Constitution that give the states a role in the makeup of the government; (3) the subsequent interpretation of both sets of provisions by the courts, especially the Supreme Court; and (4) the unwritten constitutional traditions that have informally evolved and have only recently been recognized by the federal or state constitutions or the courts.

Judicial Review

In the early 1990s and early 2000s, the U. S. Supreme Court continued to revisit and reshape the concept of federalism in cases pitting the powers and prerogatives of the state and federal government against each other. Perhaps the biggest changes had occurred in the judicial branch, with its power of judicial review. Judicial review allows the courts to invalidate acts of the legislative or executive branches if the courts determine that the acts are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court first exercised judicial review of national legislation in the landmark case of marbury v. madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 (1803). The decision, written by Chief Justice john marshall, followed the principles of Publius in The Federalist, no. 78. The Federalist Papers were based on the principle that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate. The ideas set forth in The Federalist Papers challenged those articles and proposed a new governmental style for the Union.

Judges have five sources of guidance for interpreting the Constitution: the original intention of the founders; arguments based on the theory of the Constitution; arguments based on the Constitution's structure; arguments based on judicial precedent; and arguments based on moral, social, and political values. Across the centuries, several justices have attempted to interpret the original, often vague intention of a document written in the late 1700s. Justice benjamin n. cardozo said, "The great generalities of the constitution have a content and a significance that vary from age to age." Justice joseph mckenna wrote, "Time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes. Therefore a principle, to be vital, must be capable of wider application than the mischief which gave it birth. This is peculiarly true of constitutions" (Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 30 S. Ct. 544, 54 L. Ed. 793 [1910]).

Although it may seem unlikely that a federal body would favor states' rights over federal, it is not uncommon. For example, in the 1991 case of Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 111 S. Ct. 2546, 115 L. Ed. 2d 640, the Supreme Court chose not to interfere with a state's jurisdiction. Roger Keith Coleman had received a death sentence, which he challenged in the Virginia state and federal courts on the basis that he was an innocent man being executed for a crime he did not commit. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the majority said,"This is a case about federalism. It concerns the respect that federal courts owe the States and the States' procedural rules when reviewing the claims of state prisoners in federal habeas corpus." The Court ruled that because the state court's decision against Coleman was based on independent and adequate state grounds, it would not review the determination. This deference to state laws is based on the idea that states are separate sovereigns with autonomy that must be taken into consideration.

Separation of Powers and The Plain Statement Rule

Another key element of federalism is the principle of separation of powers. The Constitution's definition of separation of powers is not specific, and the Supreme Court has struggled to interpret it. Separation of powers is based on the premise that there are three branches of federal government, each with its own enumerated powers. For example, the executive branch, which includes the president, has veto power; the Senate and Congress make up the legislative branch and have the power of advice and consent over the appointment of executive and judicial officers; and the courts make up the judicial branch and have the power of judicial review.

The separation-of-powers principle has had two interpretations. The first, formalism, is rooted in the idea that the Constitution's goal was to divide the new federal government into three defined categories, each with its own set of powers. The second interpretation, functionalism, is based on the belief that the three branches of government are not clearly delineated. Functionalists believe that the goal of separation of powers is to ensure that each branch retains only as much power as is necessary for it to act as a check on the other branches.

Although the interpretations appear similar, they differ in terms of what constitutes a breach of the separation of powers. A breach under formalism would be a breach under functionalism only if the power in question either infringed on the core function of another branch or increased another branch's power.

In Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U.S. 452, 111 S. Ct. 2395, 115 L. Ed. 2d 410 (1991), Justice sandra day o'connor wrote that the Constitution establishes a system of dual sovereignty that balances the power between the states and the federal government. At the same time, however, the Supremacy Clause (U.S. Const. art. VI, § 2) gives the federal government "a decided advantage in this delicate balance" by guaranteeing that Congress can make the states do what it wants if it acts within its constitutional delegation of power. O'Connor also said that the Court must assume that Congress does not "exercise lightly" this "extraordinary power" to legislate, even in areas traditionally regulated by the states. The people of a state establish the structure of their government and the qualifications of those who exercise governmental authority. Such decisions are of the most "fundamental sort for a sovereign entity."

The Court in Gregory also applied the plain statement rule, requiring Congress to state clearly its intent when creating laws that may interfere with state government functions. The plain statement rule, under Gregory, serves as a check against federal regulation of the states. This rule has two tiers of inquiry: (1) Congress must clearly intend to extend a law to the states as states, and (2) Congress must outline which state activities and functions it is targeting within the sweep of federal law.


Federalism is the oldest form of government in the United States. The timelessness of the Constitution and the strength of the arguments presented by The Federalist Papers offer a clue to its endurance: the Founders wrote the Constitution so that it would always remain open to interpretation. Federalism's ambiguity has contributed to its longevity.

further readings

Boyer, Paul S. 2001. Oxford Companion to United States History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Burke, Edmund. 1989. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Cardozo, Benjamin N. 1921. The Nation of the Judicial Process. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

Corpus Juris Secundum. 2002. St. Paul, Minn.: West.

Dorsen, Norman. 1994."How American Judges Interpret the Bill of Rights." Constitutional Commentary 11 (fall).

"Federalism—Clear Congressional Mandate Required to Preempt State Law: Gregory v. Ashcroft." 1991. Harvard Law Review 105 (November).

McManamon, Mary Brigid. 1993. "Felix Frankfurter: The Architect of 'Our Federalism.'" Georgia Law Review 27 (spring).

Oxford Companion to American Law. 2002. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Savage, David G. 1995. "The Supreme Court Goes Back to Work." American Bar Association Journal 81 (October).

Tanielian, Matthew J. 1995. "Separation of Powers and the Supreme Court: One Doctrine, Two Visions." Administrative Law Journal of the American University. 8 (winter).

Vause, W. Gary. 1995."The Subsidiarity Principle in European Union Law—American Federalism Compared." Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 27 (winter).

Wiessner, Siegfried. 1993. "Federalism: An Architecture for Freedom." New Europe Law Review 1 (spring).


Constitution of the United States; Original Intent.

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Federalism is one of the most fundamental principles of the American political system. Federalism can be defined as a principle of government in which political authority is divided between a national government and a collection of state (or regional) governments, acting side by side and sharing a large geographical space. The authority of the national government is exercised supremely over many areas of public policy. For example, the national government carries out the military and diplomatic functions of the country, as well as other important issues of national concern. The state or regional governments are semiautonomous and distinct entities that provide a convenient structure through which officials can administer policies of immediate and direct relevance to citizens. Some of the key services provided at the state level that most directly affect citizens are police and fire protection, criminal justice, and primary and secondary school education.

In a federal system, national and state governments are entities that operate as two mutually exclusive spheres of authority, although their functions often overlap and this can be a source of tension. One commentator on the structure of intergovernmental relations in the American system of government, James Bryce (18381922), noted that the system is like a great factory wherein two sets of machinery are at work, their revolving wheels apparently intermixed, their bands crossing one another, yet each set doing its own work without touching or hampering the other (Bryce 1916, vol. 1, p. 318). Under a system of federalism, both the federal and state governments have their own constitutions from which they derive the authority to act on behalf, and for the benefit, of the people.

In the United States, the national Constitution is the supreme law of the land. This implies, in part, that the state government must recognize and respect the national Constitution, and that state governments must set up their state constitutions and enact their own laws in such a way that they avoid conflict with the national Constitution. Where such conflict emerges, it is generally understood that the state constitution must give way to the national Constitution. Because the national Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court supersedes state or regional constitutions in power and authority, state governments usually operate with less independence than they might like and with less independence than states in a confederacy or a league of nations.

Writing about the meaning of federalism, noted British authority K. C. Wheare (19071979) defined federalism as a method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere, coordinate and independent. He further noted that each government should be limited to its own sphere and, within that sphere, should be independent of the other (McClelland 2000, p. 297). Because federalism requires that the national and state governments should each be limited to its own sphere, it becomes important for there to be a written constitution, which would define the boundaries of authority for each government. A written constitution is therefore one of the key characteristics of federalism. Without such a constitution, the national government can easily encroach upon or usurp the authority of the state governments, possibly leading to chaos.


Federalism as practiced in the United States is what people around the world usually refer to when the word federalism is uttered or heard. It is based on one of the oldest written constitutions, the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1787 after much eloquent and contentious debate over its content. The framers of the U.S. Constitution worked hard to establish a system of government they and their posterity could be proud of, a government that would best secure the permanent liberty and happiness of their country (Madison 1835, quoted in McClelland 2000, p. 293). The framers were not interested in setting up a central government, where political power would be concentrated in the hands of a national government, as was the case in prominent countries at that time, such as France and England. The framers were also not interested in continuing a confederate system because the Articles of Confederacy (the original governing charter of the United States) prevented the establishment of a strong and respected nation since the Articles created a natural inclination within the provinces to satisfy their own territorial interests rather than to secure the interest of the entire nation. The framers were, however, very much interested in a system that would reflect the wishes and preferences of the citizens, a system that would provide a high degree of independence and autonomy to the states while enhancing the international stature of the nation. Thus federalism as a theory of government was indeed an afterthought in that it emerged after the framers wrote and ratified the Constitution (McClelland 2000, p. 298).

Federalism is the product of a happy compromise in the formation of the nation and in its capacity to present a unified front when conducting foreign policy. That compromise was between Federalists such as George Washington (17321799) and John Adams (17351826), who wanted greater centralization of authority, and Anti-Federalists such as Thomas Jefferson (17431826), who favored placing power in the hands of ordinary individuals so that they can maximally manage their own affairs at the state and local levels.

The issue of individual states or regions protecting their own local territorial interests at the expense of national unity was not overcome with ratification of the Constitution, however. The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall (17551835) did much to establish and legitimate judicial review and to vigorously enforce the Constitutions contract clause toward a vision of centralizing power in order to nourish economic growth through free market capitalism. Had this vision been successfully maintained into the future, prolonged federal dominance over states would have been established sooner rather than later in the course of U.S. national development. But that vision collapsed under Chief Justice Roger Brook Taney (17771864). The Taney Court tolerated greater decentralization of the American political system (McCloskey 1994, chap. 4). The Court also wrongly and tragically tolerated slavery as a way of life in the South, as exemplified by its deplorable decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Conflict over slavery (the placement of people, in this case black people, in bondage as the property of white owners) led to a secessionist push by southerners, culminating in a bloody civil war between armies from northern and southern states from 1861 to 1865. Federal dominance was more clearly established during the 1930s after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (18821945) threatened to pack the Supreme Court with loyalists who would support and defend his New Deal policies, and the Court reversed its previous rejections of these policies.

Another characteristic of federalism is that the states provide plenty of opportunities to experiment with responses to public policy. As Justice Louis Brandeis (18561941) stated in his dissent in the 1932 case of New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country (Ducat 2004, chap. 5). Those public policies that are chosen and implemented as a result of such experiments are afforded great legitimacy by the people who are most affected by them. But while this is a strong argument in favor of a federalist system, the crux of the argument in favor of federalism boils down to the expressed relationship between the application of governmental power and the preservation of individual freedom.

Under federalism, government power is decentralized and diffused among different levels and across different branches within the same level. Thus a third characteristic of federalism is that the diffusion of power afforded by such a system helps to preserve individual freedom and suppress tyranny, which is the systemic exploitation of the populace by a few self-serving individuals. Diffusion of power helps promote individual freedom because in smaller political units, individuals can participate more directly in a monolithic unitary government, and because individuals dissatisfied with conditions in one state can vote with their feet by moving to another state. But diffusion of power also suppresses tyranny, and it accomplishes this by minimizing the possibility that any one faction can gain enough access to government to push through any kind of policy that will exploit others without being detected. In addition, diffusion of power encourages coalition-building between individuals and groups operating at different levels of government in order to achieve public policy objectives.

But, generally speaking, there are some disadvantages to a federal system as well. Because federalism requires different institutions to approve a policy before it can be adopted, each decision point can unwittingly become a veto point that slows down the process of policymaking, or worse, prevents any action from being taken to resolve an important problem. Also, variation among states in their treatment of citizens, especially with respect to civil rights and liberties, can introduce a tension into the relationship between federalism and justice, which is thought to know no geographical boundaries.

SEE ALSO Constitution, U.S.; Democracy


Bryce, James. 1916. The American Commonwealth. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How) 393 (1857).

Ducat, Craig R. 2004. Constitutional Interpretation. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson-West.

Madison, James. [1835] 2000. Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention. In Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government, by James McClelland, 293. 3rd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Press.

McClelland, James. 2000. Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government. 3rd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Press.

McCloskey, Robert G. 1994. The American Supreme Court. 2nd ed. Revised by Sanford Levinson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262 (1932).

Isaac Unah

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The Russian Federation, as its name implies, is a federated political entity. However, this concept continues to evolve and is periodically challenged by a variety of political forces. Even if using one of the simpler definitions of federalismthat of "self rule plus shared rule" within a countrythe Russian case defies easy classification.

According to the Russian constitution, there are eighty-nine distinct territorial entities within the Russian Federation, with some based on ethnic groups and others on territorial foundations. How these entities fit together in the Russian political system is a result of more than a decade of negotiation and practice. After all, the initial challenge was that while the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR) was called a federation during the Soviet period, it was a unitary system in practice. Thus, at the time of independence in 1991, each of these political units had to renegotiate its standing within the new state, which eventually developed a system referred to as "assymetrical federalism." A number of the ethnicbased republics, for example, sought greater autonomy, or outright independence.

The Federation Treaty of March 1992 was the first step in formally resolving the question of powers and rights within the federated system. By the end of that year, all but Chechnya and Tatarstan signed the agreement, and the abstention of these two republics raised questions of a possible splintering of the Russian Federation. With the adoption of the new Russian constitution in December 1993, however, the Federation Treaty was enshrined in the main legal basis of the country. Beginning in 1994, the government in Moscow worked out an agreement with Tatarstan, as well as treaties with the other republics of the Russian Federation, leaving the Chechen Republic as the sole holdout. Indeed, that part of the Russian Federation remains contested and in the early twenty-first century is mired in a bloody conflict.

There are several key issues that continue to confront the federal structure in Russia. First, there are questions concerning basic budgetary and taxation rights. Are the regions able to create their own financial bases from which to fund specific projects? From education policies to economic development plans, problems exist as to what the republics can do. Second, there remains a problem of resource management on the national level. This is particularly important in the energy and strategic mineral fields. For example, control over energy deposits in the YamaloNenets okrug was contested by that entity, the Tiumen oblast within which it is located, and the government in Moscow. Third, there are questions about the actual political power of regional governors. During the lateYeltsin era, there was a tendency for the federal government to appoint regional officials in order to better control them from the center. Since that time, however, these officials are elected, and a few of these have begun to exercise real authority in their specific regions. In addition, the Federal Council, the upper chamber of the Russian legislature (similar to the U.S. Senate), is designed to represent the interests of these various subnational entities.

Given the vast territorial expanse of the Russian Federation, as well as the ethnic diversity of the regions, political leaders in Russia at least support the idea of a federated political system. However, the history of unitary control, both during tsarist and Soviet times, has yielded a legacy within the bureaucracy and administration that is difficult to change. In addition, the specific conditions and needs of each region undoubtedly dictate the specific level of authority that may be attained throughout the country. Most analysts and experts suggest that "federalism" in the Russian Federation will remain a multilevel system that will continue to see variations from region to region.

See also: federation treaties; nationalities policies, soviet; people's commissariat of nationalities; russian soviet federated socialist republic


Kahn, Jeffrey. (2002). Federalism, Democratization, and the Rule of Law in Russia. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kempton, Daniel R., and Clark, Terry D., eds. (2002). Unity of Separation: CenterPeriphery Relations in the Former Soviet Union. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Ross, Cameron. (2003). Federalism and Democratization in PostCommunist Russia. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

StonerWeiss, Kathryn. (2002). "Soviet Solutions to PostSoviet Problems: Has Vladimir Putin Really Strengthened the Federal Center?" PONARS [Program on New Approaches to Russian Security] Policy Memo No. 283, October.

Walker, Edward W. (1995). "Designing CenterRegion Relations in the New Russia." East European Constitutional Review 4(1): 54-60.

Roger Kangas

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federalism A political system and philosophy which, within a particular nation-state, recognizes a central government for the whole country and autonomous regional governments for constituent states or provinces. The powers and functions of government are divided between the two levels. Federal systems must embody a means of resolving conflict between the centre and regions or between any two regions. Regional authorities are given specific duties and protected by rights from encroachment by the centre. Both levels of government have the right to legislate for tax. Switzerland and the United States are contemporary examples of federal political systems. The term is sometimes also applied to commercial and other organizations, as for example in the case of federal (as against centralized) labour movements, but its main application is with regard to systems of government.

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federalism Political system that allows states united under a central government to maintain a measure of independence. Examples include the USA, Australia, Canada, Germany, India, and Switzerland. Central government has supreme authority, but the component states retain a considerable amount of autonomy in such matters as education and health.

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federalism:1 In political science, see federal government. 2 In U.S. history, see states' rights.

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