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Explain the varying roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments in the United States.

Topics on the Page

European Philosophers
The Federal Government
State Government
Clashes between Federal and State Government
Local Government
  • Native American and Alaskan Native Tribal Governments

Focus Question: What do federal, state and local governments have in common and how are they different?

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lesson_plan_icon.jpgTeaching Resources
  • Great website with different lesson plans and games to teach and understand the levels of government
  • Click here for a mini lesson plan.

    • Click here for a timeline of governmental figures in all of history.

Origins: European Philosophers

-English Philosopher John Locke is often cited as being very influential in the founding and structuring of the United States Government. Locke's Social Contract Theory states that people have a right to "life liberty and property," which is a key element of the United States Declaration of Independence. Locke was also a big advocate of separation of the church and state, as well as religious tolerance, which can be seen in the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Locke was also a firm believer in the separation of powers within a government because he believed that this was the best method of evading a tyrannical government. Click here for a biography of John Locke.

-French Philosopher Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu was another enlightenment thinker who was incredibly influential to the founders of the United States. While the idea of separations of powers was created before Montesquieu, he revolutionized the idea. In his book The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu discussed his idea that there should be three levels of government: Legislative, Executive and Judicial, just like the American Government we know today. Click here for a biography of Montesquieu.

The Federal Government

  • Originally, before any form of centralized, federal government existed, there were many states. When the federal government was formed, state governments were kept intact, under the idea that it was important to keep these smaller government that were more closely connected to the people.
  • In the late 18th century, members of the first congress were to first to interpret the constitution, and had to make important decisions regarding the role of the Supreme court, among other things.

    The U.S. Capitol, Home of the Federal Legislative Branch, Washington DC
    The U.S. Capitol, Home of the Federal Legislative Branch, Washington DC

  • Both state and federal government have a system of checks and balances, in which the executive, legislative and judicial systems work together. Click here and here for informative videos explaining these branches
  • The federal government has traditionally been responsible for such issues as security and war, it has recently been more involved in issues such as health and education. The primary purpose of the federal government is to make sure that the constitution is being upheld.
  • While state governments make important decisions, the federal government acts as an overall guide, and a unifying form of centralization in a country of many states. For example, when court decisions cannot be made at a lower level, they are brought to the federal supreme court.
  • There has been much debate over the years as to exactly what powers individual states have within the context of the federal government. Likewise, there has been much debate over the role of the federal government. There have been disagreements over how centralized or decentralized it should be; in other words, some think it should have a lot of power and some think that more should be left to the states.

A list of women serving in the 114th Congress (2015-17) is available here Have each student research one of them and what they do in Congress. The House website includes a history of "Women in Congress".
Multimedia.pngClick here for a selection of US government informational games.
Multimedia.pngClick here for an interactive game on the Branches of the Federal Government and their duties.
Multimedia.pngClick here for an informative video explaining the different roles of State and Federal government in the United States.

State Governments

  • maintaining safety and security for those living within the state
  • passing a state budget
  • maintaining infrastructure
  • providing funds for education and making decisions about education
  • providing law enforcement (Texas had the first state police force—the Texas Rangers—instituted in 1835)

Clashes Between Federal and State Governments

-While most people today understand that the Civil War was fought on the basis of slavery, many Southerners believe that it was a war fought for the preservation of States rights. Because slavery was an issue which was left for states to determine, and it was left out of the Federal Government, the Southern States felt that they needed to defend their rights to maintain a lifestyle which was legal within their state. Click here for an interesting article regarding the role of states rights in the civil war.

-Today, we face similar issues, although they are not as blatantly inhumane as slavery. Many states in the United States have decided to legalize same-sex marriage despite the 1996 Defense Of Marriage Act which states that the Federal Government only recognizes marriage as existing between a man and a woman. In 2013, section three of this act was deemed unconstitutional, but there is still tension. The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that marriage is a power reserved to states to regulate, but the problem is that many of the tax benefits available to married couples are regulated by the federal government which does not recognize same-sex marriages. Click here for an interesting article regarding the recent expansion of recognition for same-sex couples.
Boston City Hall, Boston, MA
Boston City Hall, Boston, MA

Local Government

A local government unit is a county, town, city or political subdivision of a county, town or city; the District of Columbia and recognized bodies of Native American tribes and Alaskan Native villages are also local government units.
For more, see Local U.S. Governments from the National League of Cities.

  • In some places, particularly in the South, counties are the most important form of local government. In New England, towns fill the role that counties do elsewhere. Cities, or Municipalities are the basic unit of government in more urban areas.
  • County officials may include: sheriff (maintains jail and is in charge of summoning jurors), county attorney (is the county’s lawyer for suits brought against it—this is similar to a district attorney or a state’s attorney), and county clerk (registers deeds, births, deaths, marriages, divorces and adoptions). Similar officials may exist in places where the town is the main center of government.
  • Click here for an interesting video on the roles of state and local governments in the United States.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.58.11 PM.pngNative American and Alaskan Native Tribal Governments

There are 564 federally recognized tribes serving some 1.9 million Native American and Alaskan Natives. For more, see Tribal Governments from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

game_icon.svg.pngClick here for a listing of Tribal Government Websites

Click here for an explanation of the legal status of the United States Tribal governments.




Outline of U.S. government, a country of many governments. Retrieved May 16, 2007, from International Information Programs Web site
Shaffrey, Mary M., & Fonder, Melanie (2005). The Complete Idiot's Guide to American Government, 2nd Edition. Alpha.
Norton, et al, Mary Beth (1994). A People and a Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.