Module 08 Sections
From Dual to Cooperative Federalism: The Redefinition of the United States of America
One of the principal features of the republic designed by the American Founders was dual federalism. Dual federalism is, quite simply, the division of power between the federal government and the states. It was hoped that this division of power, much like the separation of powers that the Founders designed into the federal government, would be a safeguard to liberty on the one hand, and a kind of glue to hold the young nation together on the other. It is hard to imagine now, but at the time of the Founding, many, if not most people in the United States thought of themselves as citizens of the states in which they resided first, and only afterwards as citizens of the United States.
The states preceded the nation, and they were so important at the time the Constitution was framed that it would have been impossible to get the document ratified if it did not retain the power and importance of the states in the new system. Remember, the Articles of Confederation, which were the highest law of the land from the time of independence until 1787, were essentially a compact between the states with no real federal authority over them. This marked what was acceptable to the people after they gained their independence from Great Britain. The Articles failed, of course, and the people were willing to live with an expanded federal power with their second constitution, but they were not willing to give a federal government a lot of power. They feared the power of government, especially a government in a place far from most of their homes.
The federalism of the Constitution was likely the most they were willing to accept, and the original design of the nation’s governing structure in that Constitution included significant protections for the states.
First, the Constitution itself was one of enumerated powers. This means that only the powers specifically listed in the Constitution fall to the federal government. The 10th Amendment further explained where the powers not mentioned in the Constitution ultimately resided:
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.
What resulted was a system that maintained two separate spheres of influence, one for the federal government, and one for the states. Each would be supreme over the proper objects of its influence.
To learn more about the distribution of power between the states and the federal government established by the Constitution, listen to the following podcasts by 60-Second Civics:
Federalist 45 gives a good sense of the people’s concerns leading up to the ratification of the Constitution. In this number, Publius goes to great lengths to allay the fears of those who thought the federal government would come to eclipse the states in short order. In the most telling line he wrote, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and defined.” You can read the rest of Federalist 45 here:
But it would be America’s founding sin, slavery, that would undermine the dual federalism established by and enshrined in the Constitution. This would ultimately lead to a radically different notion of federalism in the United States in the years following the Civil War.
Slavery, States’ Rights, and the Coming of the Civil War
Many factors contributed to the coming of the Civil War, but the cause of the war was clear. As Abraham Lincoln said, looking back at the beginning of the war in his Second Inaugural Address, “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” Without slavery, quite simply, there would have been no Civil War.
The compromises written into the Constitution were insufficient to address the problem of slavery indefinitely, something Lincoln sensed in 1858, when he said in his famous House Divided speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
And when Lincoln became the first Republican elected President in 1860, seven states, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy before he could take the oath of office. A few weeks later, Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard attacked Fort Sumter, marking the beginning of the Civil War. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee later seceded and joined the Confederacy, bringing the total number of states that seceded to 11. The Confederacy later accepted Missouri and Kentucky, but neither of those states ever officially seceded.
The Civil War answered the slavery question with finality in the United States, but it did not end the debate over the relative power the federal government and states would hold moving forward. Like most things, this emerged through an evolutionary process over time.
To be sure, the Civil War did place the United States on a path that would ultimately see the states subservient to the federal government. With the Union victorious and the South in ruins, Reconstruction began. The first order of business was readmitting the seceded states back into the Union, rebuilding their economies, and ratifying three new Amendments to the Constitution. The Southern states were required to ratify these Amendments to be readmitted into the Union, receive the North’s support, and have Union forces withdrawn.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment defined citizenship and ensured civil rights; and the 15th Amendment guaranteed political rights. These Amendments served to extend the federal government’s reach to issues pertaining to individual citizens. Prior to this, matters such as citizenship and legal protection were within the purview of state governments. With these Amendments, a new political landscape began to emerge.
In the post-Civil War South, the Amendments granting equal protection and voting rights were largely ignored. There was little the North could do. Many slaves went back to work for their former masters, and others became indentured servants, working for low wages under poor conditions. Within a few years of the Union forces leaving the South, white Democrats had seized control of the state governments, often engaging in the use of violence and scare tactics. But a new foundation had been laid, marking the beginning of the end of dual federalism in the late 19th century.
The Gilded Age
Mark Twain famously coined the term the Gilded Age in his 1873 book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, a satirical treatment of America in the later part of the 19th century. The title refers to the practice of gilding, or covering base metal with a very fine, thin coat of gold. This leaves the impression of opulence, but in reality the vast majority of the object in question is made from cheap, readily available materials. It only looks expensive. The point is to look below the immediate surface of things to get a more accurate picture of what is really happening. For Twain, America appeared to be a booming powerhouse of industry and wealth on its surface from 1870 to 1900. But poverty lurked just below the surface, and with it deplorable living and working conditions for many Americans.
This poverty became more apparent as the era wore on. Unskilled immigrants came to the United States in droves searching for higher wages, but as they did, overcrowding became a problem in the industrial cities of the North. Many found themselves living in slums, and working under difficult conditions in the nation’s factories and mines.
All of this was masked, though, by a rapidly expanding economy, especially in the North and the West. Average wages rose quickly, and many people experienced real economic success. Some became incredibly wealthy. Railroads, factories, and coal mining all thrived, and mechanization brought prices down as wages increased.
The underlying inequality of income and wealth, though, grew throughout the period. Labor unions were formed and grew quickly, and there was a growing sense that there were underlying social problems in the United States that if not addressed, could spiral out of control. A golden age, much hoped for in the aftermath of the Civil War, turned out only to be a Gilded Age. And the problems manifest in American society during the period gave birth to the Progressive Era.
The Dawn of the Progressive Era
By the turn of the 20th century, political and technological trends that had emerged after the Civil War were picking up steam. The post-Civil War Amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th) had a nationalizing effect to be sure, but advances in communications technology and transportation bringing the nation together in ways that would have been unfathomable a generation before. The transcontinental railroad had been running since 1869, and rail lines were multiplying throughout the North and the West. What took weeks to ship now took days, and people began to move about the United States with greater freedom. Telegraph technology assured that news moved faster than ever before. And the industry of the nation hummed along at breakneck speed.
But the problems of the Gilded Age continued, and the time was ripe for a new political movement. That movement, the Progressive movement, began in earnest with the 1909 publication of Herb Croly’s The Promise of American Life. Croly, the founder of The New Republic, opened the door to intellectual progressivism by writing on the need for centralized planning to address the persistent problems evident in the American economy. With the United States’ shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy, and with its attendant urbanization and growing centralization, Croly stressed the need for a more powerful national government that could address the problems of greed and corruption, that had led to the further problems of poverty and powerlessness.
The Promise of America Life
Only a new form of nationalism could do this, in Croly’s estimation. And this new form of nationalism would have to be imbued with a deep sense of social responsibility for those who had been left behind as the American economy had matured under the old rules and standards. He urged the need for a new kind of civic virtue that would leave the door open for everyone to participate fully, for everyone to achieve what he termed “the promise of American life.”
Croly had a tremendous influence on Theodore Roosevelt, whose second term in office ended in early 1909. TR, a Republican, had acceded to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, and had won the office himself in 1905. He chose not to run for reelection, though, after promising the American people that he would not seek a second full term. Instead, he began a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican party, seeking to infuse it with the principles of progressivism. His August 31, 1910 New Nationalism speech, delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas, was his bold announcement of this new agenda.
Theodore Roosevelt and the New Nationalism
TR had already hinted, during his presidency, at some of this plan. The railroads, for example, had been regulated through the Hepburn Act of 1906, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the authority to regulate railroad rates and put an end to the differential between large and small shippers. But he went much further in the New Nationalism speech. Here he stressed that it was the proper role of government to ensure both property rights and human welfare. And human welfare, he asserted, was simply more important. Only the federal government, asserted Roosevelt, was equipped to guarantee both, and this could only occur through greatly enhanced levels of regulation. “This, I know,” he boldly asserted, “implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.”
And as a consensus emerged around this assertion, the powers of the states were greatly diminished. The Founders’ vision of dual federalism, a system in which the states and the federal government would vie for, and jealously protect their respective powers, began to disappear. What emerged in its place was a system of cooperative federalism. In this emerging system, the states and the federal government would essentially work together in order to pursue a common agenda, and this common agenda was largely set by the federal government.
Theodore Roosevelt ran for President as a Progressive, rather than a Republican, in 1912, largely on the New Nationalism platform. His main opponent, Woodrow Wilson, took a somewhat different tack, espousing the “New Freedom” instead. TR lost the battle, coming in second to Wilson in the election of 1912, but won the war. Once Wilson became President he slowly and quietly adopted TR’s New Nationalism, and the face of America was forever changed.
The Progressive Constitutional Amendments
Perhaps nothing illustrates the reach of progressivism in the United States during this period than the rapidity with which Progressives were able to get four constitutional amendments ratified. In just 11 years the Constitution was amended four times. The 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913, made an income tax on citizens legal. The 17th Amendment profoundly changed the very structure of the American regime, also in 1913, and virtually ensured, in and of itself, the shift from dual to cooperative federalism. This Amendment brought about the direct election of United States Senators, replacing the previous system of election by the state legislatures. Power thus shifted away, in a very pronounced manner, from the state governments to the people living within state boundaries. In 1919, the prohibition of alcohol was implemented across the country by the 18th Amendment. This would later be undone in 1933 by the 21st Amendment, which returned the authority to regulate alcohol to the states. Finally in 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote nationwide.
World War I, The New Deal, and Beyond
Nothing allows government to centralize power more than war, and World War I, or the Great War, is a prime example of this. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the Progressive movement was in full swing, and the forces that fueled that movement defined the activity surrounding the federal government’s wartime efforts. During this period, more than five thousand new federal agencies were created, bringing with them nearly a million jobs. For the first time, a military draft was established, resulting in a fighting force of roughly four million men, most of whom had been drafted. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were created in order to stymie public opposition to the war effort, and a host of industries were brought under direct federal control. Shipping was nationalized in all but name, and a number of industries were nationalized in fact, including telephone and telegraph communications, agriculture, and railroads. The federal government also took a much freer hand in regulating labor relations, energy production, and, through the recently established Federal Reserve, monetary policy. Throughout the period, both taxes and debt increased significantly, with federal receipts increasing 400% from 1917 to 1919, and the debt ballooning from $1.2 billion to over $25 billion during roughly the same period.
When the war concluded, the majority of the wartime controls ended as well, but a precedent had been set. More importantly, both elite and popular opinion had shifted. The vast majority of the American public now saw the intervention of the federal government into all avenues of American life as legitimate. The New Nationalism, once a radical proposal, was now the order of the day. And new exigent circumstances were just around the next corner.
On October 29, 1929 the American stock market crashed, and a long, miserable depression ensued. President Herbert Hoover attempted to alleviate the Great Depression with federal measures including increasing public works expenditures, which were higher over Hoover’s four years in office than the previous 20 years combined. Hoover propped up farm prices, and established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which offered low interest loans to struggling businesses, banks, and mortgage associations. He was responsible for the greatest peacetime expansion of government until that point in American history.
It all failed to stimulate the economy, though, which paved the way for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his promise of a New Deal for the American People in the election of 1932. That New Deal, which was built on the popular belief that federal control had been pivotal in winning the Great War, included an enhanced role for the federal government in addressing the misery of the Great Depression. This would come to extend, eventually, to virtually every aspect of American public life, including multiple jobs programs, regulation of banking, housing, agriculture, labor, and a host of others, and the implementation of Social Security.
Listen to the following podcast from 60-Second Civics to learn more about how the Great Depression changed American federalism:
The American people responded, and elected FDR in 1932, an election which began a period of marginalization for the Republican party that would last, in one way or another, for decades. Democrats would win seven of the nine presidential elections beginning in 1932, and they would hold both houses of Congress for much of the next 60 years. Franklin Roosevelt would capitalize on the tenor of the times, as he and the Democrats implemented policy after policy at the federal level. By the close of this period, the transformation of federalism was complete.
You can watch excerpts of FDR’s First Inaugural speech here:
The United States federal government, in the space of about 40 years, had become unquestionably supreme, and Roosevelt’s New Deal was the culminating factor. The American people had spoken, by electing Roosevelt in the first instance, and then by giving him both overwhelming majorities in Congress, and electing him to three more terms in office. Although he would die before his fourth term was complete, his legacy and America’s reformulation of federalism were assured.
But this was a process, in the end, which began with the inability of the Framers of the Constitution to address America’s slavery issue at the time of the Founding. There is no telling how, or even if things would have played out differently over time had that issue been resolved in 1787, but there is no denying the role that slavery played in causing the Civil War and the ratification of the post-Civil War Amendments, which opened the door, in no small part, to the reformulation of American federalism, and to the growth of the federal government.
Watch the following video to see how federalism continues to impact the lives of Americans today:
- Dual federalism
- States’ rights
- Civil War
- Cooperative federalism
- Reserved powers
- Gilded Age
- New Nationalism
- Great Depression
- New Deal