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What It Meant to be a Federalist

What It Meant to be a Federalist

Federalism: An Introduction to the Concept and Ideology

Federalism is a political philosophy that emphasizes the importance of dividing power between a central government and regional governments. The term “federalism” is derived from the Latin word “foedus,” which means “treaty” or “compact.” In the United States, federalism has been a central guiding principle since the founding of the country. This article explores what it means to be a federalist, the history of federalism, and the contemporary significance of this political philosophy.

Part I: The History of Federalism

1. Early Forms of Federalism
The idea of federalism in western political thought can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. However, the political philosophy of federalism that has influenced modern political thought emerged fully formed in the late 18th century during the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers of the United States were strongly influenced by the principles of federalism, which they saw as a way to balance the power of the central government with the interests of the states.
2. The Rise of American Federalism
The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1787, established a system of federalism that divided power between the federal government and the individual states. This system was designed to ensure that the states would retain a significant degree of autonomy, while at the same time allowing the federal government to provide a unified national defense, regulate commerce, and promote the general welfare. The supporters of this system of government were known as federalists.

Part II: What It Means to Be a Federalist

Being a federalist is not necessarily a simple matter of supporting federalism as a political system. Rather, it represents a broader set of principles and values that inform one’s political beliefs. There are a few key components of being a federalist that are worth mentioning:
1. Strong Support of a Balanced Federal System
A federalist is someone who believes in a system of government that balances the power of the central government with the interests of the states. This means that they support the idea of decentralization, with significant policy-making power given to individual states.
2. A Belief in Limited Government Power
Federalists tend to believe in limits on the power of the central government, as well as the power of state governments. This means that they tend to support constitutional limitations, checks, and balances that prevent any single branch of government from becoming too powerful.
3. Protection of Individual Rights
Finally, federalists tend to be strong supporters of individual rights and freedoms. This is because they see decentralization and limited government power as key components of protecting individual rights, as these allow each individual citizen to have a greater degree of control over their own lives.

Part III: Contemporary Significance of Federalism

Today, the debate over federalism continues to play an important role in American politics. While there are some who argue that the federal government should have more control over state affairs, many federalists continue to advocate for the importance of decentralization and limited central government power. There are a few key contemporary debates surrounding federalism:
1. Economic Policy
One of the biggest areas of disagreement between federalists and anti-federalists is economic policy. States-rights advocates tend to believe that the government should largely steer clear of economic regulation and allow individual states to set their own economic policies. Conversely, those who support greater centralized control often believe that the federal government needs to play a more significant role in regulating the economy.
2. Healthcare
Another significant contemporary debate is over healthcare. Those who advocate for a more centralized approach to healthcare policy typically believe that the federal government should play a greater role in regulating healthcare policy, while those who support decentralized policy-making argue that states should be allowed to have more control over their healthcare systems.
3. Civil Rights
Finally, there is often debate over civil rights policy. Federalists, who tend to believe in limited central government power, often advocate for a more limited role for the federal government in promoting and enforcing civil rights. Conversely, those who support more centralized control often argue that the federal government needs to play a more significant and active role in enforcing and promoting civil rights protections.


Federalism continues to be a central guiding principle in American political life, shaping everything from economic and healthcare policy to civil rights protections. Being a federalist means supporting the decentralized division of power between the central government and individual states, believing in limited government power and strong protections for individual rights. While debates over the role of the federal government will undoubtedly continue, the principles of federalism will likely remain central to America’s political identity for many years to come.

Upon earning its independence from the British Monarchy in 1776 merely twelve years prior to the creation of the Federalist Papers, the American colonies still had yet to establish an accepted form of government on a national level;

A governmental structure that would counter the previous monarchical rule under which they had existed at the mercy of British monarch, King George II. The Continental Congress, the inaugural governing body put in place subsequent to the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, contracted out a team of writers to create a legislative doctrine that would outline a governmental process that would take place within the United States of America.

Due in part to residual unrest on a national level resulting from perceived exploitation and neglect at the hands of a tyrannical, totalitarian ruling body, as well as a national desire to uphold a governmental model antithetical to the British Monarchy, the authors of the Articles of Confederation penned a doctrine that allowed each individual State to operate as an individually sovereign entity within the realm of a nation.

Although the central Government would be afforded certain powers, such as the establishment and maintenance of a military and a postal service, as well the regulation of foreign affairs and the coining of currency, it would be devoid of legislative fortitude and the ability to enforce taxation. Legislation could be proposed by the central Government; however, the passing of any respective piece of legislation was commensurate with its unanimous approval on the part of all thirteen states of the Union. In addition, the central Government was placed in a position where mere suggestions could be offered in an attempt to enforce legislation and taxation.

In its attempts to repay its collective debts, as well as maintain the legislative components over which it was allowed jurisdiction and coupled with the overarching precept it was prohibited from enforcing the collection of taxes from each individual State, the Central Government under the Articles of Confederation was nearing financial insolvency.

As a means of remedying the financial crisis, the central government began to print money that was absent of substantial backing which advanced inflation, as well as the devaluation of currency on a national scale. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay took advantage of the dissatisfaction shared by the inhabitants of the American colonies by presenting a framework of governmental process and structure found in The Federalist Papers that contradicted the maxims of a monarchy, as well as maintained legislative power that was evenly-dispersed and non-consolidated.

In addition, the governing body proposed in the Federalist Papers would act to serve the needs of its citizens rather than its citizens existing in servitude to a governing body, as was the case under King George III. The authors of the Federalist papers saw the existence of civilian revolt and a general lack of nationalism and solidarity manifested throughout the United States of America as a prime opportunity to educate the American citizenship about the benefits of a strong central government subservient to its citizens.