Independence from England left the thirteen American states without a central government. Each of them functioned as an autonomous unit. Even under the Articles of Confederation, the states retained their sovereignty. However, as a necessary compromise for the formation of the union, the states that sent their delegates to the constitutional convention at Philadelphia in 1787 yielded a portion of their sovereign powers to the new federal government. The national government thus became responsible, in the main, for the common defense, public peace, regulation of commerce, and foreign relations. And to carry out these functions, the national goverment was given the taxing power and other necessary and proper powers.
There was no precedent for the dual system of government which the American established in 1789. Consequently, defining and redefining the relationship between the nation and the states has been an ever present problem in American constitutional development.
Federal-state relationships are shaped by two cross-cutting doctrines used by the court: the preemption doctrine and the abstention doctrine. THe preemption doctrine is implied in the supremacy clause of Article VI of the Constitution. It applies to matters which are considered to have such a national character that federal laws must supercede state laws with regard to them. This is the case when Congress exercises its powers enumerated in the Constitution, as it does by conflicts with a valid federal law, the courts will invalidate the state law because it is preempted by a comparable federal law.
However, when a particular subject matter is neither explicitly delegated to the federation by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, the 10th amendment provides that it is then reserved to the states. From this derives the abstention doctrine, under which federal courts relinquish jurisdiction in certain circumstances in order to avoid needless friction with the administraton of state affairs.
Although the powers granted to the Congress were stated i nthe Constitution, the scope of these powers has been a matter of debate for over two centuries. Over the years the Supreme Court has tended to give a broad interpretation of certain general clauses in the Constitution. The “Interstate Commerce Clause”, for example, has become a source of extensive federal labor and social welfare law and even of statutes dealing with racial discrimination. Similarly, the “Necessary and Proper Clause”, which has now become a source of implied federal powers, has led to a far-reaching extension of the express legislative powers.
The economic and social development of the country has also contributed to the expansion of federal power. In recent years, areas which were once under state control, such as agriculture, mining , manufacturing, and labor, have eventually given way to national control when transportation systems and economic markets assumed a national character. Over time, much of intrastate commerce has become interstate commerce. Thus, the general trend has been toward increasing the powers of the federation and diminishing the powers of the state.
However, the courts have agreed that the most essential power inherent in the government of the state is the police power. This power includes all those general laws and internal regulations necessary to secure the peace, good order, health and prosperity of the people, and the regulation and protection of property rights. Since the police power has never been surrendered to the federal government, the primary responsibility for the protectoin of the health, welfare and morals of the people remains with the states.
From today’s perspective, the concept and role of federalism has undergone great changes since 1787. As social problems grow more complex, as they cross state boundaries, and as demands for the rights of national citizenship become more intense, the demand for action by the national government grows. On the other hand, there has been a recent emphasis on returning power to the states and localities. The dilemma, however, is essentially the same as it was two centuries ago: how to prevent accumulation of power while at the same time assure the efficient performance of government function?