What is Federalism?

More than two centuries ago, the framers of the Constitution of the United States immortalized federalism, a foundational principle, by ensuring that the powers not delegated to the United States federal government were reserved to the states and to the people. The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of including both a system of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution and the proper division of power between the states, and federal governments.

The Founders of the Constitution envisioned the people as the ultimate sovereign, and safeguarded that principle by expressly limiting governmental authority. Among the Constitutional Convention’s most brilliant political theorists, James Madison vigorously advocated for the protection of unalienable rights. To this end, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton authored The Federalist Papers in 1788, a series of newspaper articles promoting the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The Federalist Papers also presented the clearest exposition of “Federalism.” In Federalist Paper #45, James Madison wrote,

“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 powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.”

 The strict limitations placed on the federal government in the Constitution are clear, evidenced by the separation of powers principle advocated for so strongly in The Federalist Papers and at the Constitutional Convention. Affording the states the power to make decisions that impact the “ordinary course of affairs” in the lives of citizens living within each state requires decision-making closely guided by those affected, and tailored to those that live in each sovereign. But it is not just the intent of the Framers to protect states’ rights; federalism is clearly and explicitly evidenced in the Tenth Amendment.

Learn More:

Reviving our “Laboratories of Democracy”

Federalism: The Founders’ Formula for Freedom


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