What is dual federalism? How it is defined in the American Constitution

The federal system of the United States is the system that defines the power and legal authority between different departments of the government. Federalism, as a term denotes a pact, which describes different hierarchies, in the case of government it refers to different levels.

This authority and power division through layers can be found in different forms, but the one which is common in all is the American Dual Federalism. This means having a Federal Government that centrally works along with all the governments of 50 states.

What is Dual Federalism?

Any system or federalism would be called dual federalism that works for dual areas of power and authority. Particularly in America, these dual areas are state power and federal power.

This power and authority structure is defined to give a balance of authority between state and federal levels.

By definition:

When authority is divided into two levels, the state and the national levels within the US will be referred to as dual federalism. This authority could be treated equally, could hold roughly equal authority, and also could go alongside each other equally.

Practically, Article 4 in the constitution of the United States illustrates how dual federalism should work. The initial two sections of Article 4 describe the privileges and immunities and the faith and credit clauses with both of them dictating how the states are going to treat the citizens of their state and other states. The 4th section, however, describes the amendments that guarantee a government for each state.

The principle of dual federalism

In the United States, a government would have a federal or national power under which it also has a state authority. Furthermore, the states are obligated to pass on the authorities to the lower levels like cities as well.

The idea of dual federalism is multilayered where the authorities and power are further subdivided to lower levels. The concept was initially nicknamed with a metaphor ‘a layered cake’ as each layer shows a different authority level, but they all stacked upon one another to make a complete cake of power.

With time, this layered caked took the formation of a marble cake, where some layers are mixed together to create levels of authority that are overlapping. While looking at Article 6 of the US Constitution or the Bill of rights, you will see that there are specific powers of authorities that are given to a particular area or layers of government (both federal and state). But powers are also concurrently contributed at different levels.

This means that Article 6 of the US Constitution is the one that establishes the supreme law of the United States, describing the authorities to every level. The laws defined in Article 6 fall like debt on the Federal authorities. This also translates to the position of the Constitution that serves as the highest law in the US.

This also means that the Constitution would work on the highest levels of law for state law as well. If there’s an issue at the state level and it is taken to the Supreme Court for further trial, the verdict that comes from the Supreme Court will nullify the decision made by the state court.

The Constitution is also above the federal law, if an issue was proceeded towards Supreme Court, the same would be true for the federal verdict as well. 

The exclusive authorities that federal or national level has, include:

  • Declaring war
  • Making Money
  • Conducting Foreign affairs
  • Raising an army
  • Determining citizenship rules or naturalization
  • Regulating interstate or foreign commerce

Exclusive powers at the state level include:

  • Establishing local government
  • Conducting elections – even for the presidential elections conducted at the state levels individually and are governed by the Electoral college
  • Ratifying amendments in the Constitution
  • Regulating interstate commerce, where when the House and the Senate propose a bill or legislation, ¾ of the states altogether have to vote in favor to ratify it.

The powers and authorities that are shared between both layers include;

  • Creation of laws
  • Taxation
  • Law enforcement
  • Chartering banks
  • Establishing courts
  • Borrowing money

Dual Federalism with Examples

While looking at Article 1, Section 10 of the United States Constitution, you‘ll notice the reserved powers clause. The clause specifically delineates the range of powers that fall to the federal government and the authorities that come under the state government. According to this section, the powers and authorities that are explicitly not given to the federal government as federal powers will automatically be transferred to the state government.

When authorities and powers are given to states individually it is called Enumerated powers. The US Constitution defines specific and a number of authorities and powers at the federal level. Things that are not specifically mentioned for federal, come under the authorities of states. An example of dual federalism is the issuance and control of a driver’s license. Every state is authorized to provide and control the issuance of driving licenses within their boundary lines.

Court Cases in dual federalism

One concurrent power that illustrates dual federalism is the establishment of courts. The Justice System of America deals with many treaties, issues, political rights at federal, state, and local levels.

This means that in order to enforce the law, the judges are there at the state levels responsible for regulating state laws and making legislation at the state levels. Under them, they have the local courts dealing with the cases at local levels. As for federal or national levels, the law always falls for the US Supreme Court.

And then again, if a case is taken to the higher levels of the authorities, the lower level verdicts will be void. There are cases where the state has enforced something but eventually taken it to the federal level. Hammer v. Dagenhart case is an example of such transfers of authorities. Where there was a decision on child labor made at the state level but taken to the Supreme Court for further trial.

Another example of dual federalism is law making or establishing law. At the state level, state Senators are responsible for making state laws. Congress takes charge in order to ratify the laws made at either the federal or state level.

The Senate and the House of Representatives fall under dual federalism examples. Both houses are oftentimes involved in the making and the approval of a federal law that would influence several states. This may also need the involvement of the states but the laws regulated on both levels would be passed through the desks of Senators and Federal representatives for state and federal levels respectively.

Advantages of Dual Federalism

Following are some advantages of Dual Federalism that should be comprehended.

  • With dual federalism, local governments can make their own decisions without being influenced by the federal government.
  • It allows the development of local laws and has these laws implemented on local requirements. This is why when it comes to implementing laws for divorce, driver’s licenses, traffic rules, and marriages – every state has its own laws. For instance, a state with a smaller population can set a higher speed limit for driving as compared to the ones with highly populated areas.

Disadvantages of Dual Federalism

Since there can be a number of advantages of dual federalism, it also shares its portion in some notable cons.

  • WIth dual federalism, tensions between federal and state governments always stay the same. This tension between governments is not beneficial for the development and prosperity of both the state and the country.
  • Due to these conflicts, there is always a decreased level of understanding and cooperation among the governments. Eventually, there’s a lack of efficiency in the activities that require the full cooperation of state and federal governing bodies.
  • With dual federalism, every state can make its laws and implement them as they want. Due to this, the cooperation and unity among states decreased. This can eventually lead to rising friction between the US states.
  • Where every state has its own legislation, it also becomes difficult for the resident families of states to follow the same rules. Such as marriage laws, family laws, and even child custody laws.


Dual Federalism shows an uncommon aspect of the United States Government to understand the concurrent and exclusive powers divisions that enable an individual to know the purpose of every layer of the cake.

As every country regulates its laws in a specific way prescribed by the documented idea of its Constitution, dual federalism allows them to divide the constitutional responsibilities to every level. 

These levels can be federal, state, or local that are empowered to serve the nation. The Federal laws define policies to benefit the entire nation while the state legislations are limited to state boundaries.

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