Excerpts from
Teaching with Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives
National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies
Washington, D.C.

Constitutional Issues: Federalism

Federalism has been an integral part of the American system of government since its inception. Our Constitution divides governmental power between the national government and the state governments, giving substantial functions to each. As Frederick Ogg points out, the relation between these two centers of power is dynamic, not static, and "must be readjusted and reshaped by each generation to meet the changing needs of our society." In response to these changing needs, our federal system has evolved from a relationship of near equality at the formation of the Union to one of national dominance today.

The generation that lived in the years just before the Civil War struggled with this evolution. Their challenge was to balance the power relation between the national government and the states during a time of increasing tension over different economic and social systems in the North and South. In an attempt to protect infant industry in the North, the national government imposed tariffs so high that Southerners were forced to purchase what they considered to be inferior goods from the North.

In 1828 the passage of The Tariff of Abominations, as it was called in the South, provoked a constitutional crisis; South Carolina threatened to secede rather than be bound by a law of the national government that it considered null and void. A combination of compromises and threat of force averted the crisis temporarily, but this crisis of state vs. national supremacy was ultimately joined by the secession of the Confederate States from the Union and the war that followed.

The generation of the 1950s also had to define this relationship between states and national government. Because of the centralization of federal power following two world wars and the social welfare legislation of the New Deal, the national government was left with greatly expanded powers. Against this background were set the tensions created by state segregation laws that violated the rights of black Americans under the Constitution. Unlike the crisis of the 19th century, this crisis was settled by the Supreme Court. Beginning with the Brown decision, the Supreme Court struck down all state segregation laws that came before it, effectively dismantling long-established customs of the South. On March 12, 1956, 101 members of Congress signed a "Declaration of Constitutional Principles" in which they decried "the Supreme Court's encroachment on rights reserved to the States and to the people, contrary to established law and to the Constitution."

Many white Southerners had broken with Southern political tradition when they voted for the Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 because they believed he would favor states' rights. The document shown here is from just such a supporter. Documents accompanying this letter reveal that W.D. Lawson was "a very highly regarded cotton merchant" who had served as chair of the Citizens for Eisenhower Movement in Gaston County, N.C., in 1952. In his letter Lawson refers to this crisis in federalism. This document is taken from the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Records as President (White House Central Files 1953-1961), Official File.

January 21st, 1956

General Lucius D. Clay
Citizens for Eisenhower
45 East 47th Street
New York 17, New York

Dear General Clay:-

I am in receipt of your letter of January 17th regarding the reactivation of "The Citizens for Eisenhower" movement. It is true that many of us in the South contributed a good deal of our time and money to the election of President Eisenhower in 1952. It was our thought by so doing we would revert to our original constitutional form of government. President Eisenhower and his Attorney General have pressed for changes in the educational system of our section, which many of us think are as unconstitutional as anything done under the new deal. I think I speak for many of President Eisenhower's former followers when I say that the central government in Washington has no authority to tell us who shall, or who shall not, attend the schools which have been erected and whose teachers are paid wholly by the citizens of this state.

Being an independent voter, I had hoped that the large vote cast for President Eisenhower in the South presaged a two party system for it. The complete disregard of states rights by the present administration, in my opinion, has killed all chances of this improvement in our political situation.

While many of us still hold President Eisenhower in the highest esteem, and shall vote for him, you may be sure that the above facts have cooled our enthusiasm considerably. I am sorry that I cannot associate myself wholeheartedly with another movement seeking his reelection.

Very truly yours,

W.D. Lawson

Teaching Suggestions

Analyzing Tone

1. Share with students the background information. Include background for Brown v. The Board of Education, federalism, and traditional Southern voting patterns.

2. Ask students to read the letter and answer the following questions.

a. What did Lawson hope would happen when he supported President Eisenhower in 1952?

b. What events had happened to cool his enthusiasm?

c. What might he mean by the following phrases?

Research and Writing

Ask each student to prepare a letter of response to Lawson from President Eisenhower. The letter should reflect Eisenhower's position on school desegregation and deal with Lawson's specific concerns. Ask students first to read about Eisenhower, particularly from biographies of Eisenhower, and attach to their letters a bibliography of the sources they used.

Analyzing Voting Patterns

From the Civil War to World War II the Southern states could be counted on to cast their electoral votes for the Democratic candidate. As the Democratic Party began to champion the cause of civil rights, Southern voting patterns began to change. Ask students to study election maps in their textbooks from 1920 to 1984. Have them make a list of their findings, write them on the board, and write three generalizations about Southern voting patterns from 1920 to 1984 based on their findings.

Forms of Government

1. Listed below are definitions of three forms of constitutional government. Review these with students and explain that different countries use or have used different forms (for example, unitary: France, Britain, Israel; federal: United States, Australia, Switzerland; confederation: United States under the Articles of Confederation).

a. A unitary government is one in which the constitution vests all the power in the central government.

b. A federal government is one in which the constitution divides power between a national government and constituent governments. (In the United States, the constituents are the states.)

c. A confederation is one in which states create by constitutional compact a central government, but do not give it power to regulate the conduct of individual citizens.

2. Divide students into groups of four or five and ask them to create a visual display of one of the three forms of constitutional government. Their display should include the following elements and relationships between elements:

a. central government

b. constituent governments (state governments in the United States)

c. constitution

d. individual citizens and their relationship to central and constituent governments

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