The United States of America (U.S.) came into existence after the 13 British North American colonies rebelled against British colonial rule in the eighteenth century. After forming a confederation and beginning an armed rebellion in 1775, the 13 colonies declared independence as the United States of America in 1776. Victory in the American War of Independence did not, however, resolve all grievances and shortly after achieving autonomy the lack of a strong central government exacerbated various tensions and differences that threatened to pull the states apart. In February 1787, a convention of state delegates met in Philadelphia to propose a plan of government. The product of this convention, the Constitution of the United States, enshrined the concepts of federalism and described the rights and responsibilities of state governments and the states in relation to the federal government.
The adoption of this form of federal government did not satisfy anti-federalists who opposed the strengthening of central government, leading to conflict over the ratification of the Constitution. To assuage these concerns, in 1789 a number of amendments were proposed to the Constitution. The first ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, guaranteed a number of personal freedoms, checked some of the central government’s power in judicial proceedings, and limited some powers to the states and public.
The 1803 Louisiana Purchase vastly increased the territory of the U.S., sparking westward expansion. The Civil War of 1861-65, primarily fought over the issue of slavery, had a critical impact on federalism as the federal government asserted its responsibility to uphold the Union against the secessionist wishes of the Confederate States.
Federalism was redefined by the two world wars and the emergence of the U.S. as the dominant world power in the second half of the twentieth century. These events had an impact on the ability of the federal government, and of the executive in particular, to exercise governmental authority. In this period the powers of the presidency grew substantially.
The United States is a federal constitutional republic which consists of 50 States, one federal district (Washington DC), one incorporated territory (Palmyra Atoll), and a number of inhabited and uninhabited territories. The President of the United States is both the Head of State and Head of the Government. The president is head of the executive branch, which is independent of the legislature. Legislative power is vested in the bicameral Congress, which is composed of the Senate (the upper house) and the House of Representatives (the lower house). The judiciary consists of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts, with their role to interpret the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, and regulations, and to resolve disputes between the executive and legislative branches.
State governments also have significant authority in their respective states. Individual states have their own constitutions and the right to make laws in specific areas where legislative power is not the prerogative of the federal government, unless the power to do so is denied by the Constitution. This includes laws in areas such as education, contract law, and most criminal law. State governments, like the federal government, have executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Executive power is exercised by popularly elected governors who typically serve four-year terms (although in some states two years). Every state also possesses its own legislature, all of which are bicameral with the exception of Nebraska’s, which is unicameral.
The Constitution of the United States has been amended 27 times since 1789, and its federal system has been duplicated by other countries around the world. The Constitution, however, has remained a subject of contestation, particularly the distribution of powers between Washington and the states. A significant area of controversy is the growing role of the federal level of government in security since the September 11, 2001, attacks. Other pertinent issues which act as pressure points in the relationship between the federal and state governments in the United States include gun control measures, health care spending, education standards, and the debate surrounding the legalization of cannabis.