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The First Hundred Years
Majority Rules
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Majority Rules

The proper balance of power between the federal government and the governments of the states has been a contentious issue since the earliest days of our country. What powers belong only to the federal government? What powers do the states have that the federal government does not? What does the Constitution say about this issue? Over the years, many people have disagreed about the answers to these questions.

The Constitution specifies particular powers held by only the federal government -- such as to declare war, to make treaties, and to regulate commerce among the states. However, when it came to the states, the Framers did not list any particular spheres of power. Instead, in the Tenth Amendment they created a general rule: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." In other words, states maintain any power that the Constitution does not either give to the federal government or forbid the states from having.

If this language seems vague to you, you're not alone. While the vagueness has given our government the flexibility to evolve and meet the changing demands of each historical era, it has also prompted all manner of disputes between various states and the federal government. Often, the Supreme Court has been called on to settle these quarrels. The Court's varying decisions over the years on the so-called "federalism question" demonstrate the variety of ways that the balance of powers can swing.

The following four cases dealt with the balance of federal and state power -- and the majority opinions in them might not be what you expect. See if you can figure out how the majority ruled.

Click on one of the cases to get started

Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) Oregon v. Mitchell (1970) New York v. United States (1992)