The U.S. Constitution's Provisions for Federalism

Wilson riding in an open carriage in Was

Federalism as a Constitutional Problem

"The question of the relation of the States to the Federal Government is the cardinal question of our constitutional system."

-Woodrow Wilson, 1908

As Woodrow Wilson once suggested, the relationship between the States and the Federal Government is one of the most important questions one can ask, in Constitutional studies.  The Constitution sets up a relationship between national and state governments that is not unlike a sibling rivalry.  It is hard to imagine the states without the federal government. or vice versa; yet because the Constitution is often ambiguous about "who gets what," conflict is inevitable.

This lesson plan provides an overview of the Constitutional roots of conflict and cooperation between the states and the federal government. *Teachers may adapt any of the following sections for classroom use.


Students will be able to: 

1. Identify the Constitutional basis of American federalism

2. define federalism and be able to explain the ways in which power is divided between the states and the federal government

3. explain the significance of the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause

4. explain the significance of the Supremacy clause and the Tenth Amendment

5. describe the ways in which the Fourteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Amendment affect the balance of power

6. analyze and understand the ongoing Constitutional tensions between federal and state power

Activity: How Federal is the Constitution?

How federal is the Constitution?  This question (also the title of a 1987 book) has been at the center of many of the most difficult questions in the founding era, and it continues to provoke debate today.  Let's start by asking a question.  Does the Constitution establish:


  1. a consolidated national government?

  2. a federation of sovereign states?

  3. a mix or compound of both? 

In selecting your answer, write down the reasons why you think the Constitution favors a particular arrangement of power (be specific - where in the Constitution would you find evidence for your point of view?)

Review: Constitutional Government Brain Dump

Most students will answer "3," that the Constitution is a mix of national/ consolidated power at the federal level, with certain powers reserved to the states (therefore retaining an element of sovereign authority or power).  Surveys show that Americans struggle beyond this elementary understanding of Constitutional structure, however.   Very little time is spent in AP History or in K-12 classrooms studying the constitutional balance of power, or federalism.

What does the U.S. Constitution "do"? Us the following "Brain dump" map as an exercise. 

  1. Start with the Constitution in the center

  2. Work left to right (be creative - whatever works for your group)

  3. Use this mind map as a template for your own needs (*this template is designed specifically for identifying the federal features of the U.S. Constitution)

Bare Bones Constitution

*adapted from iCivics, "Preview of Constitutional Principles (HS) lesson plan

1. Ask students if there were any parts missing, or parts that were difficult to recall as a group 

2. Spend a few minutes on recall (how many articles are there? What do they do? 

Constitutional Provisions for Federalism

Now that students are reminded of the overall structure of the U.S. Constitution, we can look more closely at the Constitutional provisions for federalism. This is the hard part. 

There are at least nine ways in which the U.S. Constitution tries to solve the most important disputes. A few general tips for teaching and study: 


  • Generally speaking, there is no Constitutional "line" or division of authorities, which can tell us with any real precision how authority must be divided.  

  • Knowing that conflict or friction was inevitable, the Framers outlined a division of powers that could serve as the basis for resolving disputes, should they arise

  • Many of the provisions for federalism in the U.S. Constitution are aimed at avoiding the worst case scenario (i.e. faction, dissolution, or disintegration of the Union)

  • the following list is not exhaustive. The U.S. federal system has evolved and been transformed over time, often in ways that could not have been envisioned by the Founders