Analyze and evaluate decisions by the United States Supreme Court about the constitutional principle of federalism in cases such as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Texas v. White (1869), and Alden v. Maine (1999).


Focus Question: How has the Supreme Court interpreted federalism?

McCulloch v Maryland (1819)

The Supreme Court played a central role in defining the balance of power between the Federal and the individual State governments beginning with the landmark McCulloch v Maryland decision in 1819.
  • This early opinion, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, is fundamentally concerned with matters of jurisdiction in two spheres: State law versus Federal law; and the right of the Supreme Court to weigh in on constitutional matters as a co-equal branch of government.

John Marshall cuts a huge figure in the formation of American government. He virtually founded what we now think of as the United States Supreme Court during his tenure as Chief Justice from 1801 to 1835.
  • His appointment came out of the clash between federalist and anti-federalist forces that consumed political discourse in the young Republic; so it should come as no surprise that he chose to assert the role of the fledgling Court on this issue.

PBS overview of McCulloch v. Maryland

Multimedia.png Historical Spotlight's fantastic overview of McCulloch v. Maryland and the circumstances surrounding the court decision.

For more on John Marshall and his role in transforming the Supreme Court, see United States History I.25

200pxrainbow flag.svg.pngUnited States v. Windsor (2013). The Court by a 5 to 4 vote ruled unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages legalized by the states.

Overview of Federalism

John Marshall engraving by Charles-Balthazar-Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin, 1808
John Marshall engraving by Charles-Balthazar-Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin, 1808

  • The federalists sought an expanded role for the national government in the affairs of the states, while the anti-federalists sought to limit that power. The United States was born of thirteen discrete colonies that had enjoyed considerable autonomy under British rule. Political forces within the colonies favored de-centralized governance - the greatest guarantor of liberty for the middling classes in their view. The colonies were loosely bound during and after the Revolutionary War under the Articles of Confederation.

  • The Constitution, enacted in 1789, was clearly constructed to support a wider national agenda and transfer authority to a central body. The question then became: how much? Thomas Jefferson spoke for the anti-federalists. He argued for a "narrow" interpretation of the Constitution in which all powers not specifically delegated to federal authority should remain with the states. Alexander Hamilton argued the federalist cause. He spoke of a "broad" interpretation in which the right to apply the means deemed necessary to enact federal powers proscribed in the Constitution were implied and therefore justified.

  • The federalist agenda held sway under the Washington and Adams administrations. Jefferson's election in 1800 marked a strong shift in outlook toward the role of the central government. Marshall, a powerful spokesman for the federalist cause in the Adams administration, was appointed to the bench at the last hour to serve as a voice of opposition in a Capital dominated by Republicans. He first established the Supreme Court as a branch of government to be reckoned with in Marbury v Madison.

  • The second great opinion associated with Marshall is McCulloch v Maryland because it articulated and enforced federalist policy and it created the precedent for the Court's ability to strike down laws passed in Congress or State Legislatures (judicial review). At issue was the creation of a national bank. President Madison signed one into existence in 1816 to facilitate funding national enterprises (like war) and the creation of a single currency. Several states viewed this as a usurpation of their sovereignty and sought to tax the new bank out of existence at the local level. J.W. McCulloch was a cashier at a national bank branch in Maryland who refused to pay the tax levied in that state. It fell to Marshall to rule on the constitutionality of the bank. His opinion in this case is viewed as the first and most powerful example of the Supreme Court's interpretation of the scope of federal jurisdiction and authority based on its reading of the Constitution.

  • Predictably, Marshall argued in favor of the establishment of a national bank. The ramifications of this decision went far beyond one isolated case. The McCulloch ruling established a foundation upon which countless future opinions would rest their arguments concerning the intersection of the spheres of state and federal laws. It also created an argument for a broader mandate for central authority found in the Constitution which likewise resonated for generations to come.

See the following cases

Texas v. White (1869)

Here is information on Salmon P. Chase the Chief Justice during Texas v. White.

Portrait of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, 1860–1865
Portrait of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, 1860–1865

Alden v Maine (1999)

Here is the Wikipedia page concerning Alden v. Maine.

Federalism Cases from the Bill of Rights Institute

Interactive Resources
external image Red_apple.jpgLesson Plan(s) on federalism and the Supreme Court

game_icon.svg.pngPBS Interactive Supreme Court Games and Do I Have A Right? from iCivics

Here is a link to a site with a list of court cases about federalism with their date and what the vote was. By clicking on one of the cases you can read more in depth about it.

This is also a timeline on court cases and their significance in the American legal system.

Here is also a link to a website that provides flashcards and other study material on subjects such as this.