Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Meaning of Federal - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
Return to Title Page for Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
The Meaning of “Federal” - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Meaning of “Federal”
In America today, the tendency is to contrast “federal government” with “state government”—almost as if to suggest “central government” versus “regional government.” But that is not an adequate distinction.
Until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, the word “federal” was a synonym for the word “confederate.” In politics, a federation was a league of states or cities. This had been the definition of such words from ancient times.
The member-states or member-cities of a “federation” or “confederation” did not acknowledge or create a central government. They remained independent, but were joined together loosely by a treaty or some other agreement by which the members pledged themselves to cooperate with each other under certain circumstances or for certain limited purposes—usually military action. A federal government scarcely was a government at all. It amounted to no more than a simple apparatus for enabling the members of the confederation to confer and cooperate.
Such federations were distinguished from a central government, which had always been understood to mean a political structure in which there is one central sovereign power that all lesser political units must obey. A centralized regime, sometimes called a consolidated or unitary system of government, is one in which most political power is vested in authorities located at a common center—usually a city. The growth of centralization means the transfer of power from the local level and its greater and greater concentration in the hands of central authorities. This power may be legislative, executive, or judicial, and is usually all three. In the modern world, France, Spain, and Italy are examples of centralized political systems, whereas Switzerland, Germany, and Austria have federal systems.
So the government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1789 was a “federal” government in the old sense of that term. The United States was a league of sovereign States, banded together for common advantages, but each retaining its independence. The coordinating body, chiefly the Congress, was called the government of the United States.
In the summer of 1787, the advocates of political reform, especially James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were trying to bring into being a quite new form of general government—sometimes referred to as “national”—which would greatly reduce the powers of the States. Such plans were opposed by those delegates to the Great Convention who for a variety of reasons viewed with hostility any designs for centralizing power. The proponents of a strong national government first proposed what was called the Virginia or Randolph Plan. A second group of delegates, shocked by the nationalism of the Virginia Plan, put forward their New Jersey or Paterson Plan. Less detailed plans were proposed by Alexander Hamilton of New York and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina.
There emerged from this encounter a draft of a new constitution which was the result of a series of compromises among groups of delegates. It called for a constitution that would be neither a confederacy nor a centralized government. This new system would be a form of government that would forever change the meaning of the word “federal.”
To understand how this novel proposal—our Constitution—took form, we first need to look at the rival plans laid before the Convention in its early weeks.