The ratification or enactment of the American constitution was the pinnacle of defining authority lines between state and federal governments. Over the years the Supreme Court and political developments have redefined the historical relationship between federal and state governments. Federalism, as a principle of governance in the US has been misunderstood by many as it encompasses a system based on sharing and overlapping among all governmental levels (Gerston, 2007). Under this system the government powers are divided between the federal or central government and the states. In the central government the authority is further distributed among various arms of government. The ambiguities by the design of these relationships are and have been a source of energy and tension in the American government. Through these relations or connections, checks and balances are ensured to restrain the federal government from misuse of power and vice versa.
Federalism was crafted from a hybrid mix of confederation and a unitary government. This concept of governance at first faced resistance from anti-federalists who took issue with the balance. They favored the confederation system where individual states were sovereign. Since the civil war the powers bestowed on the federal government have generally expanded though there were instances where the legislative arm dominated or when state rights proponents have managed in limiting the federal power through legal action and constitutional interpretation by the courts. The post independence period was a hallmark of ideological developments that revolutionized the federal system.
The first known decree that inspired Federalism was the 1778 Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution that embodied the multiple-sovereignty concept. Later on James Madison and other architects of the constitution felt that the central government had limited powers compared those of states. This would lead to the fall of United States due to centrifugal forces. Madison argued that such pressures had brought down previous European and ancient Greek confederations. The viable solution to such an imminent problem was to give the central government of the federation the power to veto laws affected in the states such as the Privy Council had operated during the colonial times under the British Empire. The Madison proposal was opposed by members of the Constitutional Convention who viewed it as a threat to the authority that the state wielded. In my view these rejections were influenced by the abuses that Americans had suffered under the British authority. The Convention in this light adopted the judicial review system which stated that state laws that violated or tried to supersede the federal constitution could be rendered invalid by the federal courts. The Supremacy Clause Article IV was another measure adopted in the effort to protect the precedence of the federal laws over the state laws.
The conflicts in the federal court jurisdiction can be said to what heralded the defining element of federalism in America. This was exhibited through the Judiciary Acts of 1789 and 1801 debates. The proponents of the relatively expansive federal authority of the government advocated for wide jurisdiction of the federal courts. This was motivated by the need to keep in check states and state courts. By contrast, however, many critics felt that federal jurisdiction would dominate over state courts heavily thus leading to overexpansion of federal power.
The 1801 Judiciary Act of 1801 enacted before the federal government takeover by Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic Republican Party is often viewed as a partisan plot or ploy by the then defeated federalists. The move was seen aimed at consolidating power in the Federalist-populated judiciary. The actual truth, however, was that the Act was enacted long before the Jeffersonian win as a long-term effort to broaden federal court jurisdiction.
Another constitutional controversy took place during the great debate of the constitutionality of Alexander Hamilton’s federal Bank of the U.S. This was brought about by Alexander Hamilton’s the then secretary of Treasury suggestion that the federal government assumes the state debts .This raised concern to many anti-federalists who saw it as another move to assert federal power over states . Hamilton’s main goal was to enable the United States be financially stable in case there was necessity to fight in another way against threats such as Spain and Britain(Nagel, 2001). The proposal faced heavy opposition from southern states excluding South Carolina that had cleared almost 83% of their debts. They saw it as Hamilton’s ploy to reduce the northern states tax burden that had lagged behind in terms of debt payments. The Southern states saw this move was to their disadvantage as much of their debts were met through internal mechanisms. Hamilton in the end succeeded in pushing through the proposal in the congress with the help of much political dealing and wheeling.
The next controversy that pitted federalists and anti-federalists was brought up again by Alexander Hamilton’s push to create a national bank. The proposal cited that the federal government treasury would own a fifth control of stock of the bank and the rest, private hands. The bank also would have an oversight authority over the federal bank and offer credit to United States people in order to grow the economy. This, however, like the last proposal faced a lot of opposition. Thomas Jefferson, most notably, spearheaded the Hamilton’s opponents. The opposition was advised by the Bank of Britain’s role in undermining democracy (Levy, 2000). They further argued that having private individuals have a stake in the shares-control would jeopardize public institutions. Politicians particularly were cited as the probable manipulators of the public institution if the proposal was to be effected as it were. The constitution too was said to have not allowed the granting charters by the federal government. The bank was approved by the congress despite the opposition by a narrow margin. The bank then obtained a charter valid for a twenty-year period in February 1791.
Hamilton’s controversial national bank proposal was yet another way that the national government would control the U.S control of day to day operations with less reliance to private financial bodies for services like loan financing. Many who were not pro-federalism deemed this move as a clear overstepping of the powers of the federal executive arm. The congress is said to have made a shallow reading and interpretation of the Article I (Section VIII) of the constitution. The clause stated that the congress had the power to make laws that were essential by the power vested in them by the constitution. According to the opponents of the establishment of the bank the strict interpretation of the constitution was essential to protect the nation against tyranny. The strict interpretation ruled out that nowhere in the constitution did not empower the Congress with the right to issue any bank with a charter. The Hamilton’s supporters focused on the clause beginning claiming that it gave them the power to do make laws it deemed fit and not forbidden in the constitution expressly (McCoy, 2001).
Another political and constitutional dispute that riddled federalism was the enactment of Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 by the federal authority. The Alien and Sedition Acts constituted of four bills signed by President John Adams. The bills were prompted by the Federalists’ argument that the possibility of war with the French and attempts at spying by French individuals in the U.S required drastic action to be taken by congress to avoid national security breaches. The enactment of these bills gave the central government to great unprecedented heights. The Alien Enemies Act was the least controversial among the four. It defined the modus operandi which US authorities could use in the determination whether a citizen of an enemy country could be a threat to national security. The act further outlined procedures of deporting or detaining individuals found guilty. The second act was the Alien Friends Act which allowed the president to deport any foreign national who posed a threat within the U.S borders. The president was allowed to depart without the need for proof of guilt citing spies might easily get away by destroying evidence fooling many authorities. The third act was the Naturalization Act which revised the procedures through which immigrants could acquire American citizenship. The residency requirement was raised from five to fourteen years. The fourth and most controversial act was the Sedition Act which prohibited any person or group from opposing “any measure or measures of the United States”. This act made it illegal to express in speech, writing and print anything about the U.S president that put him “into contempt or disrepute”. Several major Republican newspapers were founded guilty of sedition in 1800 just before the presidential election.
The Alien Enemies Act kicked off a storm between the federalists and anti-federalists group. Though all agreed that the wartime act had claims that were legitimate in the protection of national security, the Alien Friends act was viewed malicious by some sections. The opposition argued that the act denied the individual's constitutional right to fair justice via a court trial. It was viewed as a Federalist ploy to see the expelling of immigrants who were great critics of Federalists. The naturalization act too was seen as a way to introduce bottlenecks in the process of acquiring citizenship for immigrants. The opposition, predominantly the republicans, reads mischief in the move or attempt to undermine the immigrants political power. The sedition act on the other hand was seen as the Federal government move to infringe upon freedom of expression guaranteed in the First Amendment. Its effect was to quell all political criticism leveled on the party in power. The Federalists had dominated all branches of the national government which made many Republicans envisaged the failure in the checks and balances system. The Republicans confirmed their worst fears of the Federal government’s enactment of Alien and Sedition Acts. This prompted them to incorporate the state’s right doctrine in their part principles and ideologies.
There have been several Supreme Court rulings that have tried to interpret different elements of Federalism. The first ruling is Gibbons v. Ogden where the court ruled that the Congress had the power to control interstate navigation by the Commerce clause. The Supreme Court asserted the federal government’s right to oversee and regulate interstate trade and offered a broad explanation of commerce that supersedes federal authority. McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) was another landmark that touched on the expansion of federal authorities’ expansion (Warren, 2011). A new federal bank in the state of Maryland refused to remit tax to the state claiming that a state had no legal mandate to tax a federal bank. McCulloch, a cashier in the federal bank, position was held by the bank setting a precedent that defined the superiority of the federal government.
The third land mark case surrounding federalism was Munn v. Illinois (1877) where the Supreme Court upheld the Illinois law. The case involved Midwestern farmers and the railroad companies protesting the exorbitant freight rates charged. The ruling permitted the state of Illinois to enact laws that are in public interest thus the state was empowered to fix maximum rates that the railroad companies could charge. The next case was United States v. Wheeler where the ruling demystified the issue of prosecuting individuals for wrongful interference with right to movement or travel. The case is hailed as a landmark interpretation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause. It contained a landmark legal pronouncement on the right to travel, which has continued to feature in the American federal jurisprudence. Steward Machine Company v. Davis is another case that defined federal tax laws. The Supreme Court held that the federal government had the power to impose tax regardless of its objective. In this case it was determined that a tax imposed on employers was made to act as a coercion mode to ensure states adopt laws that provide unemployment compensation (Warren, 2011).
The relationship between federal and state governments is a complex one. It has had its fair share of controversies. Since independence one of the most debated issues was whether the Union would survive under a federal government at the same maintaining liberty and state governments. In my opinion, Federalism as a principle is very important to the enhancement of liberty and the constitutional structure. It has a number of merits that exhibit why it is ideal for the United States of America. The first factor is that federalism acts as the ultimate system of nurturing democracy. Federalism allows the experimentation of democracy through decentralization of governance. Ideas can be tested in the state level and if found effective can be incorporated to the national level for example welfare reform is an example of a policy that began at a state level.
Federalism also allows diversity preferences for different states and it masses. It is prudent to note that different states have different priorities and needs thus decentralization allows for full exhaustion of opportunities and proper catering of needs. This system of governance also encourages liberty through ease in movement and healthy competition. The citizens can easily move to state of their preferences for instance gay individuals can move to the states where they are better tolerated. The states in terms of competition come up with policies and incentives that enhance healthy competition in terms of investments and general development.
The downside of the federalism is the lack of proper representation of the masses. Melancton Smith, an anti-federalist argued that federalism would not reflect the true picture of the United States masses but rather the first class. He cited that the government would be an oppressive government if it was dominated by the great few. The classism, in my view, can alienate majority of the masses from leadership of the federation. The cost of running a federation is also another demerit. Some of the federal government agencies like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association) incur a lot of costs associated with bureaucracy as it engages with state governments. The response of such agencies is also hindered by the interstate regulations. The federalism system can also encourage tyranny through draconian laws that can be enacted. The Alien Enemies Act enacted by the federal government in 1798 for instance suppressed the checks and balances system to enhance transparency (Steinmo,2010).
In conclusion, federalism in America has undergone a lot of transformation which portrays the desire by the American populace to adapt it to their needs and aspirations. The landmark rulings surrounding it also have created precedents that have been used world over in countries that practice it. The historical debates and controversy surrounding offer a good basis for democratic thought that has continued to put America at the forefront as the pioneer of democracy globally.
Gerston, L. N. (2007). American federalism: A concise introduction. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe.
Levy, L. W., Karst, K. L., & Winkler, A. (2000). Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
McCoy, C. S., Baker, J. W., & Bullinger, H. (2001). Fountainhead of federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the covenantal tradition. Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Nagel, R. F. (2001). The implosion of American federalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Steinmo, S. (2010). The evolution of modern states: Sweden, Japan, and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Warren C. (2011). History of the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Macmillan Company.