VII.2: What Does “Federal” Mean?

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What Does Federal Mean

The word ‘federal’ refers to the division of governing power between a nation and its sub-regions or states.

It is confusing that in America it has become common to use the word “federal government” to refer to the national government alone. It would be far clearer to use the phrase “national government” for that purpose. By contrast, “Federal government” should refer to both the national and state governments and the division of power between them. But common usage has chosen otherwise.

The words “confederacy”, “federal”, and “federation” all come from the Latin word for “faith”. That is, each state places faith in the other states to make good on the contract between them.

In today’s language, the word “federal” or “federation” usually means a more tightly coupled association. And “confederal” or “confederacy” means a looser association. For example, the Confederate States of America was a looser association than the U.S. In fact, the southern states seceded from the union because they wanted more state power, and thus a confederacy, rather than a federation.

Earlier, in 1776, when the thirteen American colonies declared their independence, they established themselves as thirteen separate nations.

Back then, the words “state” and “nation” meant the same thing. So we could say that they were in fact a “United Nations”. They hastily put together an agreement for cooperation called the Articles of Confederation, which established a Continental Congress.

But that Congress had no power to enforce anything at all. In fact, after the War for Independence ended, the thirteen states sought their own separate interests rather than their common interests.

This lack of cooperation led to chaos. It caused so many problems that the states called for a Constitutional Convention to amend the Articles. But when the delegates from the states met, they chose to scrap the Articles and write an entirely new U.S. Constitution instead.

The Constitution changed the thirteen-nation confederation into a federal system, which means the thirteen loosely connected nations became one nation. They were more tightly coupled than before but they continued to keep the state governments as well.

By 1788, enough Americans within enough states accepted the U.S. Constitution to make it the law of the land. So a new kind of government was created for Americans.

This new government was a contract between the people of all the states as one single body of people.

That made it very different from the Articles of Confederation. The Articles were a contract between the separate states, rather than between the people of the entire nation.

Alexander Hamilton wrote most of the Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper articles describing and defending the new Constitution. He described this new kind of contract like this:

[I]f we are in earnest about giving the Union energy and duration, we must abandon the vain project of legislating upon the States in their collective capacities; we must extend the laws of the federal government to the individual citizens of America…. (Hamilton 1787, 23)

Of course, this new approach was necessary because the state governments didn’t want to let go of their power as separate and independent nations. In this new system the national government is supreme over the individual states, as declared unquestionably in the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

In earlier posts, I wrote about “States’ Rights and National Supremacy”, “National versus State Sovereignty”, and “The Virginia Resolution”. In those posts I described the tug of war between the states and the nation.

Do you think America’s federal arrangement is too tight (too much national power), too loose (too much state power), or just right?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Hamilton, Alexander. 1787-1788. The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.

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