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Like Congress and the Supreme Court, the U.S. presidency is importantly shaped by federalism, and holders of the office in turn influence federalism in the course of carrying out their constitutional functions, which include taking care that the laws of the United States are executed, commanding the armed forces, nominating members of the Supreme Court and cabinet officers, recommending measures for consideration of Congress, and approving or vetoing the bills that Congress passes.


The president is selected in a way that makes use of the institutions of federalism. The framers of the Constitution provided that the president would be chosen by an electoral college, constituted for that purpose alone and composed of members from each state. They were to be equal in number to the members of Congress (representatives and senators) from each state, and chosen as each state legislature prescribed. If no candidate attained a majority in the Electoral College, or if there were a tie, the choice was to be made by the House of Representatives from among the five leading candidates, with each state having one vote—a method that has been used only once, in 1824.

Originally the members of the Electoral College were expected to exercise discretion, but in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as a two-party system developed and the right to vote spread among the white male population, the Electoral College lost its role as elector to the voting populace, which chose between candidates nominated in party conventions. Moreover, nearly all state legislatures adopted a unit rule that required electors to cast all their votes for the winner of the state’s popular vote.

Twentieth-century reforms beginning with the Progressive era gave the electorate an expanding role in choosing candidates through state primary elections and caucuses, which by the 1980s had reduced nominating conventions to TV spectaculars that ratify decisions made elsewhere. But the Electoral College endured, with the result that the winner of a U.S. presidential election is the winner of a majority in the Electoral College. He is not necessarily also the winner of the popular vote, and there have been three cases of this: Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000. Even when the popular and electoral votes have the same result, the prevalence of the unit rule (the winner in the state gets all of its electoral votes) and the presence of the two “extra” (Senate-related) members in the Electoral College tend to produce deviations from the popular vote rather than proportionality. States as such have extra weight at the expense of individual voters, which is a surviving expression of federalism.

Because of the Electoral College, presidential candidates—typically including presidents in their first term of office—must calculate how to put together majorities within states, whose importance is judged by the number of their electoral votes, rather than simply a majority of the whole national electorate. Candidates and their campaign managers must think federally. This affects the way in which they conduct campaigns, including positions taken on issues, travel itineraries, and the allocation of advertising. It presumably affects the way in which incumbents distribute appointments and other benefactions that come with office, although contemporary presidents are much less concerned to achieve geographical balance in appointments than were their predecessors of previous centuries. Whereas a president composing his cabinet and the Supreme Court historically gave primacy to state and region, today he is more likely to give weight to gender, race, and ethnicity.


One of the functions of the state governments in the federal system is to serve as testing and training grounds for candidates aspiring to national office. As of 2004, eight of the seventeen presidents elected since 1900 had previously been governors: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Some of the losing candidates also were governors: Al Smith in 1928, Alf Landon in 1936, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and 1948, Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and Michael Dukakis in 1988. At the least, this gives them a chance to prove their aptitude for electoral politics and executive office, though it may be doubted that experience as a governor helps fit a president for the conduct of foreign affairs.


Presidents have opportunities—whether seized or thrust upon them—to influence the course of federalism’s development. This was especially true of the early presidents, for in the nineteenth century the United States was still deciding what kind of federation it would be. After the drafting and ratification of the Constitution were concluded, many tests lay ahead, including the ultimate test—a civil war.

An early question, which consumed Congress and presidents until railroads developed, concerned the right of the national government to build roads and canals. Presidents agreed that “internal improvements” needed to be built, but several argued that first a constitutional amendment must be adopted. Three presidents—James Madison (1817), James Monroe (1822), and Andrew Jackson (1830)—cast vetoes that thwarted national action.

Two presidents cast vetoes against bills that would have made grants of land to the states for specified purposes. In 1854 President Franklin Pierce objected to a bill that made grants for the benefit of indigent insane persons, saying that it would throw open “the whole field of public beneficence” to the care of the federal government. Five years later, President James Buchanan cast a veto against a bill that would have made land grants to “provide colleges for the benefit of agricultural and mechanic arts.” He argued that Congress had no power to educate the people of the states, and were it to exercise such a power, “This would be an actual consolidation of the Federal and State Governments so far as the great taxing and money power is concerned, and constitute a sort of partnership between the two in the Treasury of the United States, equally ruinous to both” (Buchanan 1910, 300).

Even in their time, these vetoes of public works and land grants were not necessarily crippling. Although the national government did not undertake a comprehensive program of public works, and most such projects in the early nineteenth century were carried out by state governments or private companies with state charters, successive Congresses and presidents approved grants for specific roads and canals. Lincoln in 1862 signed the bill that Buchanan had vetoed. Called the Morrill Act after Justin Morrill, the Vermont senator who sponsored it, it was a landmark in the development of grants-in-aid to the states, which became a major instrument of the national government’s influence in intergovernmental relations. Large grants have been given for both public welfare and public works.

More challenging for nineteenth-century presidents than any enactments of Congress were claims of southern states, led by John C. Calhoun and South Carolina, of a right to nullify Congress’s laws and to secede from the union. In 1832 a convention called by the South Carolina legislature declared that the tariff laws of 1828 and 1832, which served the industrial interests of the North, were void and unenforceable within the state. Jackson as president responded with a lengthy proclamation pronouncing nullification “incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.” He threatened military action, and secured from Congress an explicit confirmation, called the force bill, of his right to employ state militias and the national army against the nullifiers. Congress also produced a compromise tariff that made it possible for the nullifiers to retreat so that this crisis ended peacefully.

Even Buchanan, though an apologist for the South, argued in 1860, as his presidency was ending and war approached, that secession was unconstitutional: “In order to justify secession as a constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of States, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties. If this be so, the Confederacy is a rope of sand.” However, in contrast to Jackson, he was unwilling to threaten force.

It became the task of Buchanan’s successor, Abraham Lincoln, to force the South to stay in the Union in a long and bloody war. In his inaugural address of March 1861, a few weeks before Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, he stated his theory that the American federal union antedated the Constitution, was perpetual, and could be dissolved only by unanimous agreement among the states. “Acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary,” he said, “. . . and to the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part” (Lincoln 1861).


Lincoln as chief executive of the U.S. government and as commander-in-chief of the Union Army preserved the Union. His twentieth-century successors would take the lead in enlarging its national government.

As the century opened, Theodore Roosevelt was advocating a greater nationalism—one of the goals of the Progressive movement—and conducting an energetic presidency, which had not been the nineteenth-century norm. Observing him, Woodrow Wilson spoke grandly of the presidency in 1907, five years before being elected to it:

[The president is] the political leader of the nation, or has it in his choice to be. . . . Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him. . . . His office is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it. . . . The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can.

Wilson combined this large view of the office with a dynamic view of federalism. The relation of the federal government and the states—the “cardinal question of our constitutional system”—could never be settled by any one generation “because it is a question of growth, and every successive stage of our political and economic development gives it a new aspect, makes it a new question.” It was clear under the Constitution that “the general commercial interests, the general financial interests, the general economic interests of the country, were meant to be brought under the regulation of the federal government . . . and it is equally clear that what [these] are . . . is a question of fact, to be determined by circumstances which change under our very eyes.”

Yet Wilson would not have had the national government supersede the states. “It would be fatal to our political vitality really to strip the States of their powers and transfer them to the federal government.” He praised “independent local opinion” as a source of vigor, and applauded the Senate for representing the social and economic variety of the country. Rather than replace the state governments, he wished through reform to make them more responsive to public opinion.

In regard to the presidency, Wilson spoke presciently. His own conduct as president, with an ambitious legislative agenda that included the creation of the Federal Reserve System, helped mold the office into the powerful institution that he and Theodore Roosevelt envisioned. Yet under Wilson’s heirs, the Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, the national government attained a size and scope, along with a commitment to supervising state and local affairs, that Wilson could hardly have imagined.

Franklin D. Roosevelt served an unprecedented four terms, through the Great Depression and World War II, and left a comprehensive legacy of economic regulation. In response to his leadership (sometimes importantly augmented by congressional support, as from New York’s Senator Robert F. Wagner), Congress passed a wide array of economic legislation: the regulation of securities markets, the insurance of bank deposits, a labor relations law, agricultural price supports, the regulation of wages and hours in industry, and the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. A greater departure in federalism than any of these was the Social Security Act of 1935, which laid the foundation of the American welfare state with promises of economic security to individuals. Poor relief had historically been a function of private charitable organizations and city and county governments, which sometimes received financial help from the states. The Act of 1935 created a national program of old-age insurance, today called Social Security, and it fostered state programs of unemployment compensation and cash assistance to aged persons, children of single mothers, and blind persons who were poor.

Even as he built a much bigger national government, Roosevelt, like Wilson, did not disparage the states. Hence he proposed federal-state cooperation in several parts of his new Social Security program. It is unlikely, in any case, that Congress would have approved a wholly national program. Grants-in-aid to state governments, which were employed in the titles of the act designed immediately to give monthly cash payments to the poor, were by the mid-1930s a familiar technique, and Congress had them under consideration even before Roosevelt took office.

When Roosevelt died, Vice President Harry Truman inherited the office, preserved Roosevelt’s legacy in domestic policy, and, confronting a threat from the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, presided over the transformation of the United States into a nation heavily armed, with a large military establishment that was committed for the next four decades to containing Soviet communism. The rise of the national security state further contributed to undermining the historic decentralization of power in the American federal system.

Domestically, Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency had a more profound, transformative effect on federalism than did Roosevelt’s New Deal. Congressional acts that he urged—above all, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965—reached more deeply than ever before into realms that had previously been left to state and local governments. Among its numerous provisions, the Civil Rights Act authorized the Department of Justice to sue to desegregate public facilities, including schools, and prohibited racial discrimination in the administration of grants-in-aid. ESEA was the first national program of general aid to elementary and secondary education, with grants weighted to benefit districts with a high incidence of poverty, of which there were many in the South. The two laws together made it possible for the executive branch and courts to mount an assault on racial segregation in southern schools and bring about a sweeping social change for which the Supreme Court has more often been credited.

Not just in southern schools, but also across a wide range of issues and local institutions throughout the country, including police forces and prisons, Congress and the federal courts joined with the executive branch in a rights revolution that brought new measures of supervision over state and local governments. These included sweeping, detailed conditions to go with grants-in-aid; judicial decrees that contained detailed affirmative commands; and broadened opportunities for citizens to bring suits against state and local officials if they believed their constitutional rights or statutory entitlements were not being honored.

Republican presidents were not leaders in this transformation in American federalism, but neither did they significantly reverse it, despite intermittent attempts to do so. Dwight D. Eisenhower created a Joint Federal-State Action Committee to study ways to strengthen state governments and sort out functions. After two years it gave way to a statutory body, the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR), which had a similar function. The ACIR produced many illuminating studies of intergovernmental relations but was powerless to alter them, and after a life of nearly forty years was abolished in a wave of budget cutting by a Republican Congress. The Eisenhower presidency confirmed, rather than reversed, the growth of the national government under Franklin Roosevelt and Truman, and added a major nationalizing measure of its own with the Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956, which gave the states generous grants-in-aid for “the greatest public works program in history,” as the president called it. In an echo of the constitutional disputes of the nineteenth century, it was also Eisenhower who called the Arkansas National Guard into federal service and sent the U.S. Army to Little Rock so that racial integration could proceed at Central High School after Arkansas’ governor, Orval Faubus, with the pretense of keeping order, had used the National Guard to prevent integration.

Promising a “New Federalism,” President Richard Nixon proposed programs of General Revenue Sharing—aid with few strings attached—and special revenue sharing, which would have consolidated and simplified many of the hundreds of categorical grant programs. General Revenue Sharing passed in 1972 but was reduced, then capped, and finally abolished under Carter and Reagan. Only two of Nixon’s six revenue-sharing proposals passed, and then in much modified form. Grant programs with specified purposes and detailed conditions had too many supporters—clients, suppliers, administrators, and other vested interests—for even a major presidential effort to overcome. The Nixon presidency confirmed rather than reversed the advances of the Johnson years, and initiated or endorsed new centralizing measures in the fields of income support and environmental protection. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and Social Security Act Amendments of 1972, in which Congress assumed responsibility for supporting the incomes of aged, blind, and disabled persons, both importantly extended the reach of the federal government vis-à-vis the states. No matter what their preferences about intergovernmental relations, presidents have policy goals, political needs, and obligations of office that drive them to employ—and usually to extend—the powers of the federal government.

Ronald Reagan resisted the role of centralizer more resolutely than any other post–New Deal Republican president, genuinely wanting to reduce and decentralize the domestic functions of the federal government. With large tax reductions and increases in defense spending, he did constrain the growth of domestic spending, and his administration achieved size-able reductions in grants for education, job training, social services, and income support. In 1981, as part of the budget process, Reagan also succeeded in consolidating seventy-seven categorical grant programs into nine “block” grants, resembling Nixon’s revenue sharing, which gave the states more freedom. But this was a success that his administration would not thereafter be able to repeat. Decentralization by design of the president continued to be difficult.


James Buchanan, “Veto Message on a Bill Donating Public Lands” (February 24, 1859) in The Works of James Buchanan, vol. X, ed. John Bassett Moore (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1910); Henry Steele Commager, Documents of American History, 5th ed. (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1949); Timothy Conlan, From New Federalism to Devolution: Twenty-five Years of Intergovernmental Reform (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998); Henry F. Graff, ed., The Presidents: A Reference History, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan Reference Library, 1984); Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1861,; and Woodrow Wilson, Constitutional Government in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1908).

Martha Derthick

Last Updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Calhoun, John; Categorical Grants; Civil War; Decentralization; Education; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Elections; Electoral College; Federal-State Relations; Foreign Policy; Governors and Federalism; Grants-in-Aid; Intergovernmental Relations; Jackson, Andrew; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Lincoln, Abraham; Military Affairs; Morrill Act of 1862; National Security; New Deal; New Federalism (Nixon); New Federalism (Reagan); Nullification; Racial Discrimination; Reagan, Ronald; Revenue Sharing; Secession; Social Security Act of 1935; State Legislatures; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; Roosevelt, Theodore; Welfare Policy; Wilson, Woodrow