Posted by: newperspectives85 | January 6, 2012

Supremacy of Federal and State governments

American Government Summer 2011

3. The Constitution distinguishes between the powers of the Federal and State governments, respectively, in some detail, though often confusingly. What are the major sections of the Constitution which determine the supremacy of the Federal government over certain areas of legislation and the supremacy of the State governments over other areas of legislation? Give examples.

At the time the Constitution developed, the state and the government needed to have powers assigned to them to eliminate struggles taking place at the time. The states needed to rely on the government to help them since running the nation was a joint effort. There are major sections of the Constitution which determine the supremacy of the Federal government over certain areas of legislation and the supremacy of the state government over other areas of legislation. Examples of areas include government taking care of foreign policy and interstate commerce, while the state has power over all not mentioned in the Constitution. One of the most important issues to discuss at the convention was foreign policy.
Interstate commerce was one of the important issues that needed to be addressed by the writers of the Constitution as the states struggled in regulating commerce. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states were in charge of most everything. Congress could not do anything despite the states’ struggle because the state did not trust a powerful government. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) state that “the nation’s shaky finances were not helped by its trade problems, which also stemmed from the confederation’s explicit reservation of all matters of commerce to the states” (p.59). Congress could not step in even if they were better able to deal with financial matters. In addition to the states not trusting national government, they were involved in interstate commerce against one another. States gave each other a hard time with finances. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “states with international ports charged exporters from other states stiff user fees…some states, responding to political pressures from indebted farmers, inflated their currencies” (p.59). With this in mind, the Constitution gave Congress the responsibility to handle commerce under the Commerce Clause . According to the Constitution (1787), “The Congress shall have Power…To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;…” (Article 1, Section 8). This meat that Congress was the one to make sure things ran smoothly in foreign nations and the states themselves. In addition to the Commerce Clause, the national government was given the responsibility to handle defense and security as although they had power to step in, states would not allow them to do so. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008) argue that “Congress lacked the authority to negotiate credible trade agreements with other nations…they also proved incapable of responding to discriminatory trade sanctions and other actions abroad” (p.59). With this in mind, the Framers said to the states in effect, foreign policy is off limits. The Constitution (1787) states that “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation…keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay” (Article 1, Section 10). The states also benefited from Congress having power to deal with interstate commerce and foreign policy.
While the states were not allowed to engage in interstate commerce, some good things came out of the national government being in charge. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “the new national government would assume outstanding debts the states had incurred during the war, protect the states from invasion and insurrection, and guarantee that all states would be governed by republican institutions” (p.73). This lifted the burden off the states to try and take care of things themselves. This would also help states trust the national government more as it would protect them from harm. In addition to the national government’s power, the states also have power
While writing the Constitution, the Framers kept in mind the concerns of the Antifederalists, or those opposed to a strong national government. The response to the Antifederalists was a bill of rights. According to Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser (2008), “in the ratification debates, Madison answered Antifederalist charges of impending tyranny by promising that once the new government was in place, he would immediately introduce a bill of rights” (p.106). The Antifederalists were always concerned about a strong national government oppressing the small states, so the bill of rights acted as something to keep the national government from having too much power by giving the states supremacy over certain issues. This included gay marriage or abortion for example. These two issues are not covered in the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment would cover concerns not mentioned in the Constitution. According to the Bill of Rights (1791), “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (Amendment 10). This means that whatever the national government does not have supremacy over is up to the states and the people. The states and people can vote for or against gay marriage or abortion.
The Constitution confusingly decides the supremacy of the national government and state governments. It was written in response to the Revolutionary War and the ineffectiveness of the Articles of the Confederation. The national government took over responsibilities that belonged to the states before such as interstate commerce and foreign policy. Whatever was not mentioned in the Constitution was left up to the states. The Constitution, has to be read carefully to understand where responsibilities lie.

Kernell, Samuel, Gary C. Jacobson, and Thad Kousser. (2008). The Logic of American Politics. Fourth Edition. Washington, D.C: CQ Press

The U.S. Constitution from The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. Retrieved August 4, 2011 from



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