American Federalism: Source, Purpose and Establishment Part I

James Madison, Father of the Constitution“The federal and State governments are in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers, and designed for different purposes.”

James Madison   The Federalist, No.46

The American freedoms of religionspeechpress and assembly as protected and practiced were new to the world. Those contributions to the world’s political thought were uniquely American. So it is with the concept of federalism. The establishment of multiple layers of government with divided sovereignty over the same territory each responsible for different aspects of life was a unique American development as well.

Dictionary Definitions of Federalism Do Not Reflect American Federalism

According to Merriam-WebsterFederalism is the distribution of power in an organization (as a government) between a central authority and the constituent units. The Free Dictionary defines the term as: A system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units.

The dictionaries speak of divided authority, but fail the mention the key to American Federalism. The American Constitution, uniquely in history divided “sovereignty”.1 By consent of the people “sovereignty” over subject matter was divided among governmental units.

The Declaration of Independence outlined the Natural Law basis for the legal establishment of the United States. Natural Law begins with a sovereign individual that for his own benefit grants certain aspects of his sovereignty to society.

Most definitions found about federalism skip straight to technical governmental organization.2 To understand American Federalism one needs to comprehend its Natural Law source, the purpose it was meant to fulfill3, and the method of establishment.

Federalism Divides Subject Matter Power, Not the Separate Functions of Power

The American Constitution separated the functions of government into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. This separation is sometimes misunderstood to be an element of federalism. Federalism is not about separation of government functions. It is about a division of subject matter sovereignty between units of government rather than branches.

The Constitution’s Article I, section 2 provides that direct taxes be apportioned among the states, section 3 provides that state legislatures choose Senators (changed by the 17th Amendment), and section 8 defines the subject matter over which the central (federal) government is granted power. Article IV defines the relationship between the states and each other and the states and federal government. Article V defines the roles of the states and Congress in amending the Constitution.  Article VI, which contains the Supremacy Clause sets forth a hierarchy of law. Taken together, these articles define the institutional structures of federalism.

At the Founding, authority for subject matters of law not addressed by the Constitution remained with the states, as granted to the states by the people.4 Any sovereignty not granted to the federal government or the states remains with the people.

This basic tenet of American Federalism was enshrined in the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights:

“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.”5

Three Connecticut Towns Adopt a Constitution: Seeds of American Federalism

Thomas Hooker

Thomas Hooker, Founder of Connecticut

While most English North American colonists had continued to consider themselves British subjects, the physical separation resulted in a governing situation much different than that in England. In the early 17th century, England remained a unitary government6.  Either the king or Parliament was the final word on all law, national or local.7 In North America, that began to change in 1620.

When the Pilgrims8 landed on Cape Cod in 1620 (no, it wasn’t Plymouth Rock), London’s practical ability to exercise sovereignty over the land claimed in North America was at best limited. The Pilgrims were however Englishmen, and in the Mayflower Compact describing how the colony would be governed, recognized themselves to be: “Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James”.

Fundamental Orders of Connecticut

Fundamental Orders of Connecticut

By 1638, Thomas Hooker and about 100 others had left Massachusetts9 and founded Connecticut. On January 14, 163910 the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut were agreed to by representatives of the towns of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield. The Orders provided for a Governor, a General Assembly, other officers, the passage of laws and protection of individual rights. The Orders make no mention of England’s “dread Sovereign Lord King” or Parliament. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut are generally recognized as the first written constitution11  in history.

The Orders made no mention of “loyal subjects” or a “dread sovereign lord”. The practice of local representative government in the North American English colonies had begun. The three towns had joined together under a central government and sown the seeds of American Federalism.12

Local Self-Government Becomes the American Norm

Though for the next 120 years England worked to exercise control and appointed royal executives and magistrates, colonial legal systems evolved from the Connecticut example. Americans grew accustomed to self-government and came to cherish the liberty and freedom that flourished when the principal governmental bodies were closest to the people. Local self-government with a loose association to a distant central government became the norm. Federalism, as it would come to be defined was the de facto13 form of organization.

England’s War with France Leads to Military Presence and Taxes

King George III

King George III

In the mid-17th Century, England and France were engaged in conflicts around the world. In the early 1750’s France was encroaching upon English claims in North America. In 1756, England formally declared war against the French in what would be known in the colonies as the French and Indian War. While the English prevailed in that conflict in 1763, there were two consequences: tremendous debt and a significant North American army.

In 1763, King George III issued a proclamation limiting colonists from moving west of the Appalachians. In April, 1764 Parliament enacted the first14 of a series of laws affecting the colonies to address England’s war debts. British soldiers were employed for enforcement and Parliament passed a law15 requiring colonists to provide quarters, food and drink for the soldiers.

The series of Parliamentary actions to assert British authority over the colonies culminated in the 1766 Declaratory Act.16 The act put a firm de jure end to the de facto federalism that existed in the colonies with these words:

… colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be… subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain… And be it further declared …, That all resolutions, votes, orders, and proceedings, in any of the said colonies or plantations, …are hereby declared to be, utterly null and void to all intents and purposes whatsoever.”

The Revolution to Prevent a Revolution

With The Declaratory Act, Parliament decimated the informal federal relationship between England and the colonies that had developed since The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut 127 years earlier. Britain revolutionized the relationship and acted to emaciate the established American institutions of self-government. In certain respects, the American Revolution was fought to preserve these institutions from Britain’s revolutionary actions.

As with any great historical event, the American Revolution resulted from multiple complex causes, but the desire to preserve of a system of strong local autonomy resulting in protections for individual liberty and freedom was assuredly a contributing factor. The unnamed colonial experience with an informal federalist model foreshadowed 1789 and the establishment of American Federalism in the Constitution.

The Constitution’s division of “subject matter jurisdiction” between government units to protect individual Natural Rights is discussed in Part II.


1 Sovereignty, in the context of a government, has come to mean: supreme authority within a territory. The idea that subject matters of sovereignty could be divided among governmental units operating within the same geography was an American development. The needed philosophical precursor to this was the Natural Law concept of “individual sovereignty” as expounded upon by John Locke, a favorite of the Founders. With sovereignty belonging to individuals, individuals were free to grant different elements of it to different entities, much like any other item of property a person owns.

2  Examples of technical elements: Federal authority over foreign affairs and war. State authority to regulate speed limits, license local business, and regulate highways.

3 The Constitution’s purpose is not something that needs to be guessed at. It’s found in the Preamble. The Preamble sums up five introductory purposes with its final denoted purpose: “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”

4 State constitutions, while generally overlooked, are also grants of authority from the people. State governments have only those powers given in their constitutions. The people, essentially each individual, retain whatever sovereignty has not been granted to the governments through the state and federal constitutions. Those grants of power can be likened a power of attorney. That principle relates to the famous Ayn Rand quote: “The Smallest Minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”

5 Also overlooked too often is the 10th Amendment, which recognizes again, the Natural Law foundation for American government, that all authority is derived originally from the individual.

6 A “unitary government” is one ruled entirely by a central authority, which exercises sovereignty. In early 17th Century England, the king remained sovereign and granted authority to local officials or recognized nobles, but ultimate authority resided with the central government in London. The king’s authority was being eroded by Parliament and this erosion would continue until Parliament became the supreme English legal body. The complex relationships of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales aside, an entity in the nature of a “state” sharing sovereignty with the central government was not within the English experience.

7 This was the stated de jure situation, though from a de facto standpoint, various nobles exercised great authority in their areas. While technically a noble exercised authority at the sufferance of the king, the king often needed to consider a local noble’s sensibilities when making a decision.

8 In flight from religious persecution, the Pilgrims had left England for Holland in 1608, but nevertheless remained loyal Englishmen.

9 Hooker and his group had found the civil life of Massachusetts to limited democratically.

10 Due to a curious historical quirk, the document reads January 14, 1638. By modern calendars, the date would be January 24, 1639. Conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar necessitated the 10 day difference. At the time England’s New Year began on March 25th, not January 1st, so by the calendar at that time it was 1638, but when modernized it was 1639. Whew. England changed its official calendar in 1751.

11 In 1959, Connecticut officially adopted the nickname of “The Constitution State”.

12 The Fundamental Orders, served principally as Connecticut’s Constitution until 1818. Of historical interest, the United States Constitution went into effect in 1789, 150 years after the Orders were adopted.

13 A circumstance that exists in accord with existing law is considered de jure. A circumstance that exists in reality, but is not authorized by law is de jure.

14 In England it was called the American Revenue Act of 1764; in the colonies it was called the Sugar Act.

15 The Quartering Act of 1765.  The colonial experiences with the Quartering Act would lead to the adoption of the Third Amendment.

16 It is instructive to take a few moments to read the entire Declaratory Act. The Act demonstrates the arrogance of a central government that feels unrestrained.


For Further Reading



  1. […] documents, and I’m not speaking of conspiracy theory sites here. “How can we apply the American Freedoms to remove thimersol/mercury from vaccines? Perhaps it is a combination of metals also from this […]

  2. […] [1] See, American Federalism: Source, Purpose and Establishment Part I […]

  3. […] By virtue of its Supremacy Clause, the US Constitution is the “supreme law of the land “. However, in some instances, by virtue of the Tenth Amendment,[4]  state constitutions have more force and effect in specific areas. The states principally control matters such as local criminal law, land law, contract law, and family law. Those are among the powers recognized as reserved to the people by the Tenth Amendment. This division of “subject matter jurisdiction” between government units in the same territory is the essence of American Federalism. […]

  4. […] The Separation of Powers institutionalized in the Constitution was the culmination 18 centuries of human thought on establishing government yet protecting rights.  The American Founders relied upon that, but the colonial experience taught them that further protections against tyrannical government would still be needed.  The Constitution established institutions that not only separated government functions within the central government, but would separate subject matter sovereignty between governments within the same territory creating American Federalism. […]

  5. […] The Constitution’s answer to this conundrum was creation of a republic, separating power within the federal government, periodic elections, differing office terms, differing constituencies,[9] and dividing sovereignty. […]

  6. […] was among the most crucial elements of federalism, which divides sovereignty between the states and federal government. As more power has gravitated […]

  7. […] Two concepts were built into the Constitution’s institutions to balance state interests: federalism[2] and the differing membership[3] of the House of Representatives and in the Senate.[4] The […]

  8. […] government functions and sovereignty were separated, checked and limited by applying principles of federalism, separation of powers and fiduciary government.  These components were intertwined with the most […]

  9. […] Two concepts were built into the Constitution’s institutions to balance state interests: federalism and the differing membership of the House of Representatives and in the Senate. The Framers were […]

  10. […] human failings drove creation of many constitutional institutions.  Powers were separated and sovereignty divided to protect against human tendencies to accumulate power.  Most institutions were designed with the […]

  11. […] governmental entities, by citizens. The role of the federal government is simply to provide for national security, and interstate commerce and safety. In the past century, the role of the federal government morphed from what was intended to be a […]

  12. […] courts could order states to pay money, states would become mere federal agencies contrary to federalism principles […]

  13. […] and imposed limitations on the exercise of that authority.  Under the American principles of federalism, the original Constitution placed few limits on the exercise of state power.  Through amendment […]

  14. […] Obamacare.  It is a rare matter that implicates the basic principles of American government: federalism and separation of powers.  The relationship of the federal government to state governments and the […]

  15. […] The process of establishing a constitution and having the government derive its authority from the approval of the people through a ratification process is an American contribution to human social organization. The evolution of the written constitution in America is often said to have started with the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which set forth the powers and organization of that colony around 1638. The result of that is Connecticut’s nickname, the Constitution State.  Connecticut also set in motion the evolution of the American concept of federalism. […]

  16. […] eligible to vote.  At one time only property-owning white males could cast ballots. As part of the federalism design, dividing sovereignty between the states and central government,  the Constitution had […]

  17. […] Articles I, II and III define the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government respectively. The US Constitution’s Article Four defines relationships among the governments regarding the following: recognition of each government’s official acts, how a State treats the citizens of another state, extradition of criminal fugitives, return of slaves, admission of new States, and defense of the country from invasion and domestic violence. This Article provides legal definitions for parts of American federalism. […]

  18. […] Two concepts were built into the Constitution’s institutions to balance state interests: federalism[2] and the differing membership[3] of the House of Representatives and in the Senate.[4] The […]

  19. […] financial and counterfeiting investigations.  Law enforcement, in keeping with the concepts of federalism had largely been a local matter, and the thought that the federal government had a general […]

  20. […] writing about the Constitution addresses Original Intent and deeper issues of federalism and separation of powers.  There is a salutary lesson in the Twentieth […]

  21. […] between the federal government and the states. For the Founders, Separation of Powers and American Federalism were not enough protection for the people’s […]

  22. […] Two concepts were built into the Constitution’s institutions to balance state interests: federalism[2] and the differing membership[3] of the House of Representatives and in the Senate.[4] The […]

  23. […] authorized to exercise only those powers which are specifically given to it. It makes clear the principles of federalism underlying the […]

  24. […] American Federalism: Source, Purpose and Establishment Part I […]

  25. […] When the Act was renewed in 2006, no new data was compiled.  States were still being required to get Justice Department approval before changing voting laws.   The Court determined that relying on such old data was an inappropriate exercise of Congress’ power under the Fifteenth Amendment and contrary to the basic founding principle of federalism. […]

  26. […] the central government branches, checks and balances between and within the branches, and federalism achieved by dividing sovereignty between the states and the central […]

  27. […] having authority over the same territory, but different subjects is called federalism. The idea of American Federalism is to protect freedom by limiting each government to its own […]