Use the word "Federal" in a sentence, and often one might, at most, think of the Federal Government of the United States.
But the idea of being federal, or being part of a federation, is more than just the United States government or if you will, a popular science fiction series.
It is a practical term that can apply to nations, businesses, or even you and I as individuals.
School's in session – today's lesson is on federalism.
The captain of our destiny
Let's talk about ourselves for a bit.
We all have our freedom of choice of what we want to do – for better or worse. As Thomas Jefferson said very well indeed
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
With these rights we can choose what to do
You can choose to eat cookies all day.
You can choose to learn more about the world around you.
You can drive around town at 100 mph.
You can get good exercise daily.
Of course, we must also take the consequences, again, for good or bad.
Eat too many cookies, and you will get sick.
Getting knowledge of the world around you allows you to make more informed decisions in life.
Driving at crazy speeds will probably result in you getting into a nasty accident.
Getting good exercise helps your body to work better, allowing you to have a happier life.
For all this, we are free to choose.
But this also extends to organizations created by people.
The management of a business can make decisions for the company – who to hire, let go, what prices to charge, etc.
Nations also can make choices – what laws to pass, how much taxes, what treaties to sign, and so on.
The Italian Senate
Let's get together, yeah yeah yeah
Living life on your terms, being independent, and doing things your way has its appeal, to be sure; but it can also be a lonely feeling
and it may not be the best way.
Sometimes joining forces with others help to accomplish things we couldn't do otherwise – at least not as easily.
When people agree to work together for a common cause, they can be called allies or confederates. In the case of people, being confederates, or allies, can happen anywhere from students working together on a school project to a couple being in love.
Nations too can join forces for a common cause – this is called a confederation or confederacy. Just as with people, in a confederacy all parties involved agree to work together. But they do so while still keeping all their rights and privileges. They remain separate and individual; they simply decide to work together.
Some examples in history:
During world war II, there were two sets of confederacies. On one side were the "allies," United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and so on. On the other side were the "axis powers," Germany, Japan, Italy, and their allies.
When the 13 American colonies declared independence, they also agreed to form a confederation under the Articles of Confederation. The Continental Congress now became the Congress of the Confederation. This was replaced with the current United States Constitution.
The tie that binds
But sometimes simply being friends isn't enough.
Being boyfriend and girlfriend is fun, but then the time comes for both to commit to creating a stronger bond by getting married.
Upon taking the wedding vows, both parties agree to give up some of their choice options to form a union that is more than each one and that can promote the happiness of both.
Sometimes nations do the same. It's called a federation.
In a federation, nations or states not only agree to be allies or confederates, but they move some of their decision-making rights to a federal government to create a more perfect union. The goal is to keep most of their decision-making rights, but let the federal government take over tasks that make sense to have a larger group take care of.
Let's give an example to show the point.
A more perfect union
It didn't take too long for people to see that the Articles of Confederation weren't cutting it.
Greedy European nations wanted to take over the newly freed 13 states. There was a need for unity to stand up to them for the common defense.
War debts needed paying, and there was no way the confederation could raise the money to pay it.
The new states kept squabbling amongst themselves, causing tension.
The solution? Create a federation – a United States of America.
Under a federation, all the states could keep their hard-won independence (states rights) while letting the United States government handle problems of common interest (defense, treaties, handling conflicts between states).
The United States is not the only federation in the world. Here are some others:
So, what is the big deal about knowing what federalism is? For many, it is important to understand how their country works. But at a more basic level, federalism is about connections, connections between people and states. Connections always have a personal element, because it is about people.
That's why it is worth understanding.
On the web
This video explains how the idea of federalism is applied to the United States.
Confederation Definition for Kids
A simple explanation of what a confederation is, designed for children to understand.
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