Federalism at Work


THOMAS JEFFERSON, Letter To John Adams, 1819

The federal entity created by the Constitution is by far the dominant feature of the American governmental system. But the system itself is in reality a mosaic, composed of thousands of smaller units -- building blocks which together make up the whole. There are 50 state governments plus the government of the District of Columbia, and further down the ladder are still smaller units that govern counties, cities, towns and villages.

This multiplicity of governmental units is best understood in terms of the evolution of the United States. The federal system, it has been seen, was the last step in an evolutionary process. Prior to the Constitution, there were the governments of the separate colonies (later states) and prior to those, the governments of counties and smaller units. One of the first tasks accomplished by the early English settlers was the creation of governmental units for the tiny settlements they established along the Atlantic coast. Even before the Pilgrims disembarked from their ship in 1620, they formulated the Mayflower Compact, the first written American constitution. And as the new nation pushed westward, each frontier outpost created its own government to manage its affairs.

The drafters of the U.S. Constitution left this multilayered governmental system untouched. While they made the national structure supreme, they wisely recognized the need for a series of governments more directly in contact with the people and more keenly attuned to their needs. Thus, certain functions -- such as defense, currency regulation and foreign relations -- could only be managed by a strong centralized government. But others - - such as sanitation, education and local transportation -- belong mainly to local jurisdictions.