Appendix C: A Very Brief History of Federalism in the United States

The power-sharing relationship of federalism was born in the American Revolution. Before the Revolution, there were thirteen colonies that had each been established at different times and for different reasons. Each colony had their own separate territorial laws.

Before the colonies decided to declare independence from Great Britain, they realized that they would need to work together to defend their common interests. Starting in 1774, the colonies sent representatives to a Continental Congress where they discussed how to respond to the British government’s attempts to exert control over the colonies. After war broke out between the British and the colonists in Massachusetts, the second Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain in 1776.

In 1781, while the war for independence was still underway, the thirteen colonies adopted the Articles of Confederation, which created a national-level government to unite the colonies against Great Britain. Under this new model, the colonies became states. The new national government made it easier for the states to work together in the war, but the individual states kept most of the power. After the war ended in 1783, the national government (called the Confederation Congress), struggled to rule effectively. The Confederation Congress did not have the power to create taxes or the power to make the states obey its decisions. This made the national government too weak to effectively unite the states in peacetime, deal with foreign nations, or pay the debts created by the war.Frustration with the Articles of Confederation and the Confederation Congress eventually led to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. This meeting of representatives from the states planned to rewrite the Articles to fix their many problems. Through a lot of debate and sectional compromise, the Convention drafted a new governing document: the U.S. Constitution. After the Constitution was drafted, the individual states had to ratify it. By ratifying the new Constitution, the states bound themselves together and agreed to share power with the national, federal government. The Constitution was ratified in 1789 and is still the central document for U.S. law.

Blog at