Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo

A series of postcards from different states, with the slogan “Greetings From” above each state’s name. Iconic images and scenery decorates each states’ postcard. States includes are Virginia, South Carolina,Utah, Oklahoma, Arizona, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, Maine, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
Figure 3.1 Your first encounter with differences across states may have come from visiting relatives or going on a cross-country trip with your parents during vacation. The distinct postcard images of different states that come to your mind are symbolic of American federalism. (credit: modification of work by Boston Public Library)

Federalism figures prominently in the U.S. political system. Specifically, the federal design spelled out in the Constitution divides powers between two levels of government—the states and the federal government—and creates a mechanism for them to check and balance one another. As an institutional design, federalism both safeguards state interests and creates a strong union led by a capable central government. American federalism also seeks to balance the forces of decentralization and centralization. We see decentralization when we cross state lines and encounter different taxation levels, welfare eligibility requirements, and voting regulations. Centralization is apparent in the fact that the federal government is the only entity permitted to print money, to challenge the legality of state laws, or to employ money grants and mandates to shape state actions. Colorful billboards with simple messages may greet us at state borders (Figure 3.1), but behind them lies a complex and evolving federal design that has structured relationships between states and the federal government since the late 1700s.

What specific powers and responsibilities are granted to the federal and state governments? How does our process of government keep these separate governing entities in balance? To answer these questions and more, this chapter traces the origins, evolution, and functioning of the American system of federalism, as well as its advantages and disadvantages for citizens.

Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Jan 5, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.