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Federalism: Maintaining Autonomy and Democracy


When thinking about federalism, the United States of America easily comes to mind. It is one of the most powerful and richest nations on earth. Therefore, its political history is the best case study when it comes to understanding federalism. At first glance, it seems that federalism was chosen to ensure autonomy so that a huge group of people living in a sizeable land can be governed well without resorting to tyranny. But upon closer examination, federalism is more than that – it is not only about preserving the autonomy of the member states of the federation but also about democracy. It can even be argued that in a federal setting, there is a double separation of powers: vertical and horizontal, and this structure of governance ensures that there will be autonomy in each state as well as democracy in the United States of America.


There is a need not only to define terms but to understand the context behind the meaning of words. In this study there, the concept of federalism requires further scrutiny. But before going into the technical meaning of the words, it is imperative that one should first understand the historical reasons why the Americans decided to use a federal form of government and not choose from the many variations of democratic forms of government available to them. They did not simply choose federalism because they wanted to be free from the rule of a King or Emperor. It is a well-known fact that a major part of the U.S. used to belong to the Empire of Great Britain, and when they won their independence from the British Crown, they decided that it would be best to adopt federalism.

Their reasons for doing so go beyond the fact that they do not want to go through another bloody revolution. They had to consider the fact that when they were still under the hegemony of the British Empire, each region was given the freedom to trade and create a community as long as they were not in conflict with the laws of England. In other words, even when this particular colony was under royal decrees, there was no central government that existed within the American continent. Their founding fathers, therefore, had to take this into consideration, and so when they created the U.S. Constitution, it was made clear that there would be a Union of States, but it will be governed by a Federal government.

It did not happen overnight. It took thirteen years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence before the league of sovereign states ratified a Constitution that created the United States of America (Boyd, par. 4). In turn, the U.S. Constitution established a union of states under a federal system of governance. The most important feature of this federal system is the assurance that there would be two levels of government that would act simultaneously on the same territory and on the same citizens (Boyd, par. 5). Autonomy is ensured, and the maintenance of democracy is made possible as well because the men and women who will be charged with these powers are elected by the people.

Double Separation of Powers

Before going any further, there is a need to take a closer look at a federal system of governance. Yet, at the onset, it must be acknowledged that federalism is not easy to define. It is similar to abstract terms like democracy and freedom. Studying the federal form of government exercised by the United States strengthens this view. For instance, the following commentary will give the students of law a feel of what it means, but never the concrete definition so desired. The commentary states that “A federal system checks the growth of tyranny, allows unity without uniformity, encourages experimentation, and keeps government closer to the people” (Pearson, par. 1). It brings the reader closer to the meaning but not quite. In this regard, legal experts found at least four preferred expressions that describe an aspect of federalism, and these are listed as follows:

  • diffusion of authority from national to relatively local government units;
  • centralisation of national authority;
  • separation of national and state authority; and
  • empowerment of both state and national governments (Erbsen, 4).

It might be easier to grasp the meaning of federalism by using a more technical approach. It was defined as the theory or advocacy where final authority is divided between sub-units and centre and “…unlike a unitary state, sovereignty is constitutionally split between at least two territorial levels so that units at each level have final authority and can act independently of the others in some area” (Follesdal, par. 1). This form of government is best applied in countries where there are cultural and ethnic differences among populations (Follesdal, par. 1). The United States is a melting pot of cultures and languages. Therefore, federalism is one system that can be used by disparate groups of people to survive and thrive.

As mentioned earlier, the history of the United States favours this kind of governance. It can be said that the Americans are wary of centralised governments. Their bad experience with a monarchical form of governance, as well as their understanding of the conflict created by centralised rule in European countries, made it easier to adopt federalism. Thus, it is easy to see that the primary objective of adopting this system of governance is to ensure autonomy but at the same time prevent lawlessness.

One could only imagine what went through the minds of those who ratified the U.S. Constitution. They wanted order and the rule of law, but they were afraid to give it to a dictator or an oligarchy. The huge American landmass was subdivided into different states, and each one has each own unique attributes. In many cases, differences in culture and dialects are very much evident. The people residing in these territories, as well as their corresponding leaders, must be assured of autonomy or the nation risk rebellion or secession.

Vertical Powers

One of the unique features of federalism is the double separation of powers. As mentioned, there are two major reasons for this setup. It is to have order in the federation and, at the same time, a subdivision of authority that makes it possible to have autonomy and democracy. It is indeed a well-designed system, but it must be said that it is complicated and not easy to understand, implement and maintain. It is a testament to the gritty resolve of the American people that this kind of government survived a Civil War, two World Wars, a tumultuous post-war period in American politics, especially during the 1960s, and many other challenges.

The first separation of power is vertical. There is a need to have a centre that is powerful enough to manage a territory as well as to enforce the law of the land. The purpose is to ensure order. If there are conflicts, for instance, if there is vagueness and difficulty in interpreting some specific law, Americans know that the Federal government is at the highest level of the hierarchy. This means that the national government has the power to break any impasse and therefore resolve issues quickly without having to ask permission and without having to please every local leader.

This idea was tested after the Americans gained their independence. In the Civil War, there were some states who did agree with the highest authority of the land. There was a bitter disagreement when it came to the issue of slavery, and so they wanted to secede from the Union (Boyd, par. 2). The Federal government stood its ground. The vertical separation of powers ensures that the national government has the power to overrule the few in favour of the many. The conflict was not resolved in the courts nor at the negotiation table but on the battlefield.

The Civil War was one of the bloodiest conflicts in U.S. history because every bullet and every cannonball that was fired was not aimed at a foreign adversary but a fellow citizen. Every dead soldier is an American soldier. This was lamented by then-President Abraham Lincoln, and to this day, Americans remember the infamous war hoping that they will never have to experience the same bloodshed. In the end, the national government was able to subdue the rebel states, but they paid dearly for it.

This was the first major test of the Federal government that was established through the U.S. Constitution. It is interesting to find out why they had to go to war and not simply exhaust all the tools that are at their disposal to resolve the said issue. Looking at the basic framework of federalism, it will be revealed that Abraham Lincoln’s administration was forced to go to war because the rebel states tried to set a dangerous precedent. If the rebels were allowed to have their own way, then the Union or the federation would be no more. If the national government did not take drastic steps to ensure the survival of the Union, then the United States would cease to exist.

On paper, the nation would still be considered a federalist type of government, but in practice, vertical powers coming from the highest authority of the land would mean nothing. If the rebels were allowed to secede from the Union, then from that point onward, the authority of the Federal government could be challenged at every turn. It would then be easy for other states to ignore rulings and judgments if they feel that it is not in their favour. If that will happen then the structure of federalism will crumble.

On the other hand, the use of military might by the national government to systematically dismantle the opposition can also raise concern, for it is reminiscent of what a foreign power did to the American people a century or so before the Civil War. It is easy to understand why Lincoln and his cabinet were forced to go to war, but if there are only vertical powers that are available to govern the land, then the threat of secession will always remain. There has to be another feature that must be added to the vertical separation of powers between the national government and the states.

Horizontal Powers

In the Civil War, the national government exercised its power to declare war, knowing that the future of the Union was at stake. But after the conflict, it was important that the national government should not overstep the boundary given by the U.S. Constitution. The centre, which in this case is the Federal government, is not allowed to micromanage a state. In other words, the U.S. Constitution dictates that there must be a separation of powers between the national government and the states giving the sub-units autonomy to pursue what they think is best at the local level. For instance, each state has its own constitution and is therefore authorised to make judgments and decisions without having to consult the national government (Cauthen, 783). In this manner, states maintain their autonomy.

The horizontal separation of powers is not only limited to the sharing of power between state and national government when it comes to governing territory and its citizens. The autonomy granted by the U.S. Constitution does not give the state the freedom to build its own kingdom, so to speak, and isolate itself from the rest of the 49 states. It is part of the package to co-exist with others and respect the autonomy of other states. Moreover, “States must give full faith and credit to each other’s public acts, records and judicial proceedings; extend to each other’s citizens the privilege and immunities it gives its own; return fugitives from justice” (Pearson, par. 6). In an ideal setting, all the members of the Union must work hand in hand in building each other up and not tear each other down. They can be assured that a national government is like a father to them, facilitating their growth and helping in resolving conflicts between each member.


The beauty and genius of the federal system of governance are seen in the double separation of powers as well as the maintenance of a system where two levels of government are acting simultaneously on the same territory and its citizens. This has so many benefits aside from the assurance that sovereign states will be given the autonomy they deserved when they decided to join the Union. The first practical benefit is the amplification of strength. In a union, there is a multiplication of capabilities. For example, there is a heightened sense of security because no other country will dare go to war with a union comprising of 50 sovereign states.

There is also the increased ability to benefit from trade. Using the power of economies of scale, the members of the union can take advantage of agreements between member states to become highly competitive in the world market. This is the reason why the European Union was formed in the first place (Follesdal, par. 30). But there are more advantages to a federal system aside from politics and trade. There is also the issue of freedom from persecution, freedom from tyranny and the protection of the rights of individuals.

The double separation of powers is not only for the sake of order and the efficiency of governing territories. One of its main functions is to prevent one from becoming too powerful and overwhelming the other. The national government cannot be allowed to be too powerful that it can force others to adhere to what it believes to be absolute truth. The U.S. Constitution prohibits the national government from taking private land without just compensation, establishing a national religion, and prohibiting the free exercise of religion (Boyd, par. 6).

On the other hand, the freedom to make their own laws and enforce it can cause problems in “horizontal federalism” because it is impossible to limit the effects of state laws within its own borders. According to one commentary, this friction can “flare out of control if left unchecked” (Erbsen, 7). In this regard, the national government is needed to maintain national stability. Notice also the broad powers of the national government as stated in Articles I, Sec. 8 of the U.S. Constitution that includes: the exclusive power to mint currency; establish and maintain an army and navy; declare war; regulate interstate commerce; establish post offices; establish the seat of the national government; and enter into treaties (Boyd, par. 6). These broad powers must not go unchecked, and this is made possible by the ongoing interaction between the national government and the state.


It has been made clear why the federal system of governance will ensure autonomy within every sovereign state that chooses to become a member of a union. The United States of America is a good example of this practice. In order to address the need to maintain national stability, the U.S. Constitution provides broad powers to the national government but fearing abuse. It also states that there is a limit to those powers. Each state has its own constitution and has the ability to enforce its own laws. The state is mindful of its own citizens and will ensure that their rights are protected.

The national government could not just come in and confiscate private lands, for instance. The national government could not also impose a national religion or prevent states from exercising freedom of religion. This is an example of how states maintain their autonomy. When it comes to democracy, one can say that federalism supports the democratic process because the citizens of each state can participate in the electoral process and participate in choosing national leaders such as the next president of the United States.

Works Cited

  1. Boyd, Eugene. American Federalism, 1776 to 1997: Significant Events. 1007 U.S. Embassy. Web.
  2. Erbsen, Allan.  Cauthen, James. Horizontal Federalism in the New Judicial Federalism: A Preliminary Look at Citations. 2003. Albany Law Review.
  3. Follesdal, Andreas. Federalism. 2006. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.
  4. Pearson Education. American Federalism. 1995. Pearson Education, Inc.
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"Federalism: Maintaining Autonomy and Democracy." StudyKraken, 26 Aug. 2022,

1. StudyKraken. "Federalism: Maintaining Autonomy and Democracy." August 26, 2022.


StudyKraken. "Federalism: Maintaining Autonomy and Democracy." August 26, 2022.


StudyKraken. 2022. "Federalism: Maintaining Autonomy and Democracy." August 26, 2022.


StudyKraken. (2022) 'Federalism: Maintaining Autonomy and Democracy'. 26 August.

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