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110 min

Guiding Questions

  • How has the Constitutional principle of federalism shaped government policies over time?
  • How does the legacy of slavery relate to the principle of federalism?
  • To what extent and in what ways have the powers and functions of the two levels of government changed in the 20th and 21st centuries?
  • How has the Supreme Court interpreted the Commerce Clause?
  • How did Founders Roger Sherman and James Madison understand federalism?


  • Students will describe functions of the national government according to Article I of the Constitution.
  • Students will explain how the Constitution in Article IV and the Tenth Amendment both prohibits and enables certain state powers.
  • Students will define terms: expressed, enumerated, and reserved powers.
  • Students will analyze primary sources and the Constitution in order to understand the principle of federalism.

  • Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Article I
  • Articles of Confederation
  • Commerce Clause
  • Constitution
  • Decentralization/devolution
  • Democracy
  • Due process
  • Electoral College
  • Federalism
  • Federalist No. 39
  • Founders
  • Framers
  • Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)
  • Great Depression
  • James Madison
  • Jim Crow
  • Republic
  • Separation of powers
  • Sixteenth Amendment
  • Tenth Amendment
  • United States v. Lopez (1995)

To begin, activate students’ prior knowledge by having them complete Handout A: Federalism Venn Diagram in order to differentiate which functions of government are best delegated to which level, state or federal. Discuss students’ answers as a whole group.

BRI Homework Help Video Federalism:

Have students use Handout B: Article I Sections 8, 9, 10 of the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment to review passages from the U.S. Constitution in order to understand how it distributes government powers. Students will write a title for each section or amendment, compare the ways in which power was divided between the states and federal government, explain the Founders reasoning for dividing power, and identifying the ways in which rights are protected in these articles and amendments. Have students discuss how their answers on Handout A might change based on their understanding from Handout B.

Then students will consider a short essay to learn how the legacy of slavery is related to the principle of federalism by reading Handout C: State Power – Criticisms and Responses. Use the critical thinking questions to discuss with students how federalism was related to slavery and segregation in American history.

Have students read the following primary source excerpts to establish an understanding of how thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries expected the principle of federalism to be applied. This activity might be done jigsaw style. (Divide the class into 3 sections, forming study groups, and assign one of the three documents to each section. Then form new groups to discuss all three documents. These sharing groups should consist of one or two students who worked on each of the three selections.)

Have students work in their sharing groups to complete Handout G: An Overview of Federalism at the Founding and Early Republic to analyze the roles of the national and federal government according to each author.

Have students trace how interpretations of the Commerce Clause have changed the nature of federalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by reading Handout H: “How Has the Supreme Court Interpreted the Commerce Clause?” and completing Handout I: Commerce Clause Timeline.

Whole group discussion: How has the Constitutional principle of federalism shaped government policies over time? Use specific documents and historical examples to support your comments.

Students will create a poster of federalism highlighting one part of American history. Students could research one topic within the lesson: a SCOTUS case, Jim Crow laws, New Deal programs; Commerce Clause.  Students must answer the question within their poster: How has the Constitutional principle of federalism shaped government policies over time?

Student Handouts

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