Since its inception as a nation independent of European political control, American politics has flaunted a ethnic and historical diversity which few nations have begun with. It can be argued that every one of the original thirteen states which formed the United States of America were in some way culturally and historically unique from the others, either in having a different origin or a different combination of origins. With this as the historical backdrop, it is only natural that the founding fathers had initially envisioned a confederation of states rather than a union. Under such a system, each state was effectively a sovereign political entity with a weak center to hold them together. It was eight years after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation that a new constitution was ratified which created the United States in more or less the form it is seen today.
James Q. Wilson and John DiIulio, Jr. purpoted three essentials which should characterise any nation which claims to be a federation. Firstly, there must be at least two levels of governance. This was a given in the case of the United States of America due to its origins as a confederation. Secondly, as a corollary to the first point, these layers can only be called functioning levels of governance if they possess their own authority and power which, though they may overlap, are fundamentally separate. These separate layers of governance are safeguarded in the United States by the existence of National and State level constitutions which define and regulate the power and authority of each. Finally, and arguably most importantly (especially given the fact that the Civil War was fought to define this point), neither the States nor the Central government can abolish eachother – they are mutually separate, yet co-existing bodies.
While the United States government has, by and large, never strayed from these essential points, it has evolved and changed over the 225 years since it became a federation. Ever since the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland, the United States has been in a constant state of evolution to refine and impliment the concept of dual federalism – the concept that the Center and the States are equal partners with their own spheres of power and influence. For example, the year 1798 saw the creation of the Doctrine of nullification which, in essence, granted the states the power to suspend, within its jurisdiction, any enactment by the center which it deemed to be unconstiutional. This doctrine came about as a response to the Alien and Sedition Act passed by the Fedralist-controlled congress with the aim of silencing its Jeffersonian critics. The act, however, eventually backfired and led to the downfall of the Federalist party. Similarly, the Doctrine of States’ Rights aided States in protecting its citizens against unconstitutional enactments of the Center. This, on the one hand, empowered the states. On the other, the Doctrine of Impled Powers aided the Center to considate its position as an equal member and not merely a pawn in the hands of the States. This doctrine stated that the Center was empowered to pass laws which were, as stated in Article I of the Constitution, ‘necessary and proper’ to carrying out the will and the mandates of the constiution. It was with regard to this very matter that Chief Justice John Marshall pronounced his decision in the McCulloch v. Maryland case. In this case the State of Maryland attempted to sue McCulloch for refusing to comply with the State’s regulation of stamped paper for the issuing of bank notes. Chief Justice Marshall declared the act passed by the State of Maryland unconsitiutional and decided the case in favour of McCoulloch. It was through this interpretation of the Constitution that the States’ ability to indirectly undermine the authority of the Center was halted. Thereafter, a tenuous balance of power in the dual federation was maintained for a time. It was not until the Civil War that the powers of Center were finally settled and the Center was given back (or reclaimed) the powers to create armed force, control finance, etc.
It can be argued that the Civil War is so integral to the American political system and history that any commentary on it would simply ammount to a common sense account. As such, The next factor in the creation of American federalism which this paper will look into will not be the Civil War. Rather, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 will be analysed to understand how the Center acquired greater power in areas which were traditionally ascribed to the States.
This act essentially prohibitted the creation of any form of trusts which restrained trade or commerce amongst States or with foreign nations. This act can be said to herald the end of the old form of dual federalism which the American State had been clinging to and mandated the creation of te federalism which is known and practiced in contemporary American politics. By propelling the Center into the arena of State-level trade and commerce, the act problematised the long held practice of a neat division of Central and State-level power and authority and demanded co-operation rather than toleration. Having said this, it is important to note that this act might not be as significant as the Civil War or other factors in determining the evolution of American Federalism; it was chosen because it deals with an area (trade and commerce) which was not as significantly affected in the lower levels by the Civil War as areas such as the military or finance.
The early part of the twentieth century saw the increasing power of the Center to the point where the powers of the State could hardly be distinguished from it. Due to the Depression and the World Wars, which created a situation where the United States had to play a greater role in World Affairs, the Center assumed more and more power. Though it cannot be said that this power was always aquired at the expense of the States, it did create a scenario which some scholars have described as resembling a marble cake. Instead of a neat State-Center division, the powers and authority of the governing bodies were mixed. The unprecedented rise of the USA as the world’s pre-eminent superpower meant that its foreign affairs and policies (which were areas reserved almost exclusively to the Center) were of prime importance. This put additional strain on the States’ already diminished autonomy.
It was not until the 1970s, primarily during the presidency of Richard Nixon, that the idea of New Federalism evolved and held sway. This concept favors the return of powers to the state. Cases such as United States v. Lopez (1995), which delt with the creation of gun-free school zones, cemented the rise to prominence of New Federalism. It is this concept which every president since Nixon has upheld and sought to enforce in various ways up to present times.
As has been seen, the growth of American federalism has not been merely an excerise in evolving a political philosophy or frame, it has influenced political behaviour to the point where it has become the calling card for extra-American observers to characterise America’s political system. Facts such as Georgia being the first state to allow 18 year old citizens to vote, Colorado’s use of sunset laws and California’s anti-air pollution laws in addition to the aforementioned McCulloch v. Maryland and the Anti-trust Act has shown that American policy has been deeply influcenced by the dilectic formed between State and Center. Clearly Federalism is one of the most, if not the most prominent feature of the American government.
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