Federalism: Basic Structure of Government

A series of postcards from different states, with the slogan

Your first encounter with differences across states may have come from a childhood experience—perhaps visiting relatives in another state or on a cross-country trip during summer vacation. The distinct postcard images of different states are symbolic of American federalism. (Credit: modification of work by Boston Public Library)

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the difference structures of governments, including unitary, confederation, and federal structures.
  • Explain the basics of U.S. federalism.
  • Discuss forces of centralization and decentralization in the U.S. federal structure.

Part of the discussion at the 1787 Constitutional Convention focused on basic governmental structures. In declaring independence in 1776, highly centralized unitary government under a king was clearly rejected. In sharp contrast, the first U.S. constitution, The Articles of Confederation, promoted a confederation of the states with very decentralized power concentrated at the state level and a weak central government. As previously discussed, the Articles were not successful, and the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened to make changes in our governmental structure. Rather than tweaking the confederation structure, a third option was essentially invented–what we call today a federal system or federalism. The federal design divides power between multiple levels of government–often state and national. As defined, federalism is an institutional arrangement creating relatively autonomous levels of government, each able to act directly on behalf of the people with granted authority.

As shown in the chart below, under a federal system, the authority is divided between the national government and state governments, with authority to act derived directly from the people. In contrast, a confederation vests power and authority in state governments with national authority delegated by the states. Under a unitary system, authority to act is concentrated with the national government alone–any authority delegated to lower levels of government is exercised at the discretion of the national government.

Chart illustrating unitary, federal and confederation structures of government.

At the time of the 1787 convention, there were examples of both unitary governments and confederations; however, no examples of the middle option–which we now call a federal system. Among government systems today, there are examples of all three kinds of governmental structures.

Chart illustrating the three structures of government by showing various countries that use those structures.

American federalism seeks to balance decentralization and centralization forces. We see decentralization when we cross state lines and encounter different taxation levels and voting regulations. Centralization is apparent with the federal government’s unique authority to print money. State border crossings may greet us with colorful billboards, but behind them lies a complex federal design that has structured relationships between states and the national government since the late 1700s.

An unique feature of the American governmental structure is a balance of both horizontal and vertical division of powers. As an institutional/structural design, federalism is intended to both safeguard state interests while creating a strong union led by an effective centralized national government. Federalism divides power between multiple vertical layers or levels of government—national, state, county, parish, local, special district–allowing for multiple access points for citizens.  The governments, by design at the national and state levels, check and balance one another.

At each level of the U.S. federal structure, power is further divided horizontally by branches–legislative, executive, and judicial. This separation of powers feature makes the U.S. federal system even more distinct, since not all federal systems have such separation of powers.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are the central differences between unitary, confederation, and federal governmental structures?

  2. How is power separated and shared in the U.S. federal structure?

Terms to Remember

centralization–power is concentrated at one level of government such as the national level in a unitary system

confederation–highly decentralized structure of government with roughly co-equal entities/sovereign states forming an alliance for purposes such as national defense and/or other agreed purposes

decentralization–power is divided or shared between various levels of government

federal system/federalism–institutional arrangement creating relatively autonomous levels of government, each able to act directly on behalf of the people; authority to act granted by the people

separation of powers–a horizontal division of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial powers, allowing each branch of government to act as a check and balance on the other branches

unitary system–highly centralized governmental authority in which any other level of government below the national government is dependent upon the central/national government; centralized power or substantial authority is concentrated with national government

Examples For Further Study

The structure of government impacts the function (day-to-day business) of government.

Countries must make this important decision about which structure of government to employ before working on the details of how this organizational structure will carry out the basic functions of governing.

Chart showing how a unitary government has highly centralized authority and less participation by the public.
Chart showing how a confederate structure has a weak central authority and is more government by committee.
Chart showing how federal government have multiple levels and power is spread across branches of government as well.

Charts by Deborah S. Hoag, Austin Community College.