The Federal System

The framers of the Constitution had several clear-cut objectives in mind. They set these down with remarkable clarity in a 52-word, six-point preamble to the principal document.

"... To Form A More Perfect Union"

The problem of building a "more perfect Union" was the obvious issue facing the 13 states in 1787. It was quite clear that almost any union would be more nearly perfect than that which existed under the Articles of Confederation. But devising another structure to replace it involved critical choices.

All the states were covetous of the sovereign power they had exercised since the break with England 11 years earlier. Balancing "states' rights" with the needs of a central government was no easy task. The makers of the Constitution accomplished this by letting the states keep all the powers necessary to regulate the daily lives of their citizens, provided that these powers did not conflict with the needs and welfare of the nation as a whole. This division of authority, which is termed federalism, is essentially the same today. The power of each state over local affairs -- in matters such as education, public health, business organization, work conditions, marriage and divorce, local taxation and ordinary police powers -- is so fully recognized and accepted that two neighboring states frequently have widely differing laws on the same subject.

Ingenious though the constitutional arrangement was, the controversy over states' rights continued to fester until, three-quarters of a century later, in 1861, a four-year war broke out between the states of the North and those of the South. The war was known as the Civil War, or the War Between the States, and the underlying issue was the right of the federal government to regulate slavery in the newer states of the Union. Northerners insisted that the federal government had such a right, while Southerners held that slavery was a matter for each state to decide on its own. When a group of Southern states attempted to secede from the Union, war broke out and was fought on the principle of the preservation of the republic. With the defeat of the Southern states and their reentry into the Union, federal supremacy was reaffirmed and slavery abolished.