Constitution 101: Federalism

Under the Constitution, government power is shared between the federal and state governments. The original understanding was that the states would wield most of the power, but it didn’t work out that way. Find out why in part 12 of Legal Lad’s series about the U.S. Constitution.

Adam Freedman
January 4, 2013

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Today’s Topic: Constitution 101 – Federalism

And now, your daily dose of legalese: This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Constitution 101

This is the 12th installment of a new series on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For more on the Constitution, you can check out my new book, The Naked Constitution: What the Founders Said, and Why it Still Matters.

Federalism Defined

Federalism refers to our system of divided sovereignty, in which some government functions are vested in the central government and others in the states. It’s a theme that runs throughout the U.S. Constitution which, of course, created the federal government but also assumes the continued existence of states with their own legislatures and their own laws.  The Constitution, for example, assumes that states will maintain their own militias, which could be called into service by the federal government “to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel Invasions.” Today, the state militias are known as the National Guard. 

The Tenth Amendment

Article I of the Constitution defines the scope of federal law by delegating certain powers to Congress – these are typically referred to as the “enumerated powers.” The implication of Article I is that all other government powers are left to the states. That implication, however, was not enough to satisfy skeptical state politicians. Seven of the state conventions that ratified the Constitution demanded an amendment that would expressly protect the sovereign powers of the states—a demand that was ultimately met by the Tenth Amendment.  According to the Tenth Amendment: “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 the people.” The Tenth Amendment was understood as a reaffirmation of the federalism principles inherent in the structure of the Constitution.


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