Constitution Lectures 5: Federalism vs. Nationalism  (HD version)

Constitution Lectures 5: Federalism vs. Nationalism (HD version)

Welcome to Part 5 of our lecture series on
the Constitution. In previous lectures, we’ve been covering the founding principles behind
our Constitution. They are the principles that were universally agreed to, both at the
time of ratification and in the court precedents that follow it. But now, we look at a controversy
to which there was no agreement. Some of the founders were federalists, and
some were nationalists. We’ll talk about those concepts and what they mean. Understand
that neither of these two factions won out over the other, and so the Constitution is
a compromise between these two. The controversy was first laid out in the
debates in the Federal Constitutional Convention. According to James Madison’s minutes, it
was Gouveneur Morris who laid out the controversy, saying that a federal government was “a
mere compact resting on the good faith of the parties,” and a national government
has “a complete and compulsive operation.” He also expressed his preference for a national
government. So a federal system, or a federation, is a
coalition or covenant of different groups, in this case, states. The state governments
came together to join a union, a federation, and the Constitution creates that union. A federal system is a bottom-up hierarchy,
with supreme power emanating from below, in this case, from the people, who give some
powers to the state governments, and the states give even fewer powers to the federal government. This results in local governments having the
most power. This was seen as being essential to liberty, since it’s a lot easier to deal
with an oppressive local government. People have much more power and influence locally
than they do federally. Not only that, it’s a lot easier for someone to move over to the
next town than it is to move to another state, and it’s a lot easier to move to another
state than it is to pack up and emigrate to another country entirely. In this way, there
was competition between different governments and different ways of doing things. This means that very few powers are centralized
in the federal government. The federal government has no business intruding into the internal
affairs of the states, and it is limited in what it can tell the states to do when dealing
with each other or other countries. A national government is opposite in practically
every way. It is a large government divided into states, the power structure is top-down,
and it is the central government where all the power rests. The central government then
gives up some of its power to the states, who give up some of their powers locally. The Constitution is basically a federalist
document. The people were very wary of strong central governments, having just gone through
a lot of trouble to overthrow one. However, it is not purely federalist; there are nationalistic
aspects of it. The Constitution sets up the country as a
union of sovereign states, each with full autonomy over their purely internal affairs,
as long as the actions taken by the state do not violate the Constitution. Some powers, as we saw in Lecture 3, are specifically
enumerated to the Federal government. In those particular areas, the Federal government acts
as a National government, with full Constitutional power to take all actions necessary and proper
to execute those powers. In addition, some powers of the states were
expressly prohibited. For example, Article I Section 8 gives the Federal government the
power to coin money; Article I Section 10 prohibits the states from coining money, and
from making anything except gold and silver coin legal tender. So from a monetary standpoint,
our government is nationalist, not federalist. Also, it is the Federal government, not the
states, that is the judge of its own powers. The system of checks and balances set up by
the three branches, as we discussed in Lecture 3, was put in place to prevent the Federal
government from usurping too much power. Of course, the states and the people do have
one recourse when they disagree with what the Federal government determines its own
powers to be: the process of amendment. Here’s where things get confusing. Federalism
is now most strongly associated with Alexander Hamilton and his faction. The Hamiltonians
believed in a strong central government, with extra-constitutional functions such as a national
bank. This would make them nationalists. But understand that the people were very wary
of nationalism. Concerned for their political future, they took the moniker, “Federalists.” In this way, they sought to present their
arguments as more palatable by the people. Their main arguments, published in what have
become to be known as The Federalist Papers, lay the justification for the Constitution
as proposed by Congress. However, a good many of these were written by James Madison, who
was only nationalistic in certain aspects, as defined by the constitution, as we saw.
He was more philosophically aligned with the Jeffersonians. They were now stuck with the moniker “anti-Federalists,”
even though they themselves were philosophically federalist. If you’ve ever been upset by
our government using the wrong word to describe something in order to make it seem more desirable,
understand that this practice started before our country was even founded. The end result is that we have a federalist
(or Jeffersonian) Constitution in all areas except those specifically mentioned in Article
I Section 8. In those areas, the Constitution is nationalist, particularly where those functions
are prohibited to the states. That’s how our government is primarily federalist in
most ways, but nationalist in a few others. We still refer to the central government as
the Federal government, even though in recent decades it has gotten more and more nationalistic
and much further away from the federalist government it was designed to be.
Until next time, stay strong and be free.


  1. So far, this is the best Constitution Lecture yet. This one was really clear and concise. Really well done!

  2. @TheRadicalRyushin "You are acting like you have zero capacity to know anything on your own. What are you, a moron?"

    No, YOU'RE the one resorting to bogus Argument from Authority and refusing to respond to the logic I presented.

  3. i'm fairly certain that the meaning of federalism changed to mean nationalism… and confederalism (formerly a synonym) was what remained to represent the thought.

  4. The CSA continued the Founders principles,that the North DC threw the Constitution away & Lincoln established his Marxist system in 1861 immediately after being placed in office, that was forced on everyone via Lincoln.But the CSA refused to live under the Lincoln Communism and defended the Constitution & the Founders Republic that Lincoln had destroyed.Since the new Constitution, it basically made the terms "Federal" and "National" mean the same thing-at least they made everyone think that way.

  5. I wanted to say thanks, Mr. Killian. I am currently enrolled in an AP US History class and this topic was really confusing me, until I found this video. 🙂

  6. A very pleasant lecture on the Constitution. Nice to see a little bit of truth still out there. One thing though, the states do have (or at least had at the beginning) more checks on the general government than just amendment. A refusal to cooperate, as expressed in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, also known as nullification, and secession are two other viable and direct options.
    On a more abstract note, the states are the ones who delegated the general government's powers; they are the 'originators' per se of its power, and thus should theoretically have the final say on the powers of the federal government. This is of course why 3/4 of the states need to approve of a Constitutional amendment for it to be ratified.

    We also have the Electoral College, as well as the original conception of the US Senate among other things which gave the states more direct influence in the federal government.

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