Federalism has evolved over the course of American history. At different points in time, the balance and boundaries between the national and state government have changed substantially. In the twentieth century, the role of the national government expanded dramatically, and it continues to expand in the twenty-first century.

Dual Federalism (1789–1945)

Dual federalism describes the nature of federalism for the first 150 years of the American republic, roughly 1789 through World War II. The Constitution outlined provisions for two types of government in the United States, national and state. For the most part, the national government dealt with national defense, foreign policy, and fostering commerce, whereas the states dealt with local matters, economic regulation, and criminal law. This type of federalism is also called layer-cake federalism because, like a layer cake, the states’ and the national governments each had their own distinct areas of responsibility, and the different levels rarely overlapped.

The Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment (1861–1868)

Part of the disputes that led to the Civil War (1861–1865) concerned federalism. Many Southerners felt that state governments alone had the right to make important decisions, such as whether slavery should be legal. Advocates of states’ rights believed that the individual state governments had power over the federal government because the states had ratified the Constitution to create the federal government in the first place. Most Southern states eventually seceded from the Union because they felt that secession was the only way to protect their rights. But Abraham Lincoln and many Northerners held that the Union could not be dissolved. The Union victory solidified the federal government’s power over the states and ended the debate over states’ rights.

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified a few years after the Civil War in 1868, includes three key clauses, which limit state power and protect the basic rights of citizens:

  1. The privileges and immunities clause declares that no state can deny any citizen the privileges and immunities of American citizenship.
  2. The due process clause limits states’ abilities to deprive citizens of their legal rights.
  3. The equal protection clause declares that all people get the equal protection of the laws

Industrialization and Globalization (1865–1945)

The nature of government and politics in the United States changed dramatically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The national government assumed a larger role as a result of two major events:

  1. Industrialization: The economy became a national, industrial economy, and the federal government was much better equipped than the states to deal with this change. For much of the nineteenth century, the government pursued a hands-off, laissez-faire economic policy, but it began to take a stronger regulatory role in the early twentieth century.
  2. Globalization: Because of its vast economy and its extensive trading networks, the United States emerged as a global economic power. The federal government assumed a greater economic role as American businesses and states began trading abroad heavily.

Although these events played out over many decades, they reached their high points during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt (1933–1945). The Great Depression, brought about by the crash of the stock market in 1929, was one of the most severe economic downturns in American history. Many businesses failed, roughly one-third of the population was out of work, and poverty was widespread. In response, Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, a series of programs and policies that attempted to revive the economy and prevent further depression. The New Deal included increased regulation of banking and commerce and programs to alleviate poverty, including the formation of the Works Progress Administration and a social security plan. In order to implement these programs, the national government had to grow dramatically, which consequently took power away from the states.

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