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Balancing Federal and State Authority
by Alison Jovanovic and Lena Morreale Scott for Street Law, Inc.

Intro   Learning Objectives   Standards   Media Components   Materials   Prep for Teachers

Grade Levels: 9-12

Time Allotment: 90+ minutes (*additional time may be necessary for further exploration)

This plan includes lessons for two 45-minute classes and two optional extension activities.

The first extension activity is for teachers of U.S. history who may wish to help students better understand the Federalists and Antifederalists and their views about the balance of power between states and the national government.

The second extension activity could be used in history, government, civics, or law classes by teachers who wish to connect students to current issues involving federalism.


What are the arguments in favor of a weak national government that gives more power to states versus a strong national government that holds more power than state governments? What is federalism? How has the Supreme Court further defined the balance of power under federalism? How is federalism evident today? These questions are answered in this lesson and the optional extension activities.

Students will view excerpts from the PBS series THE SUPREME COURT, episode 1, "One Nation Under Law," and discuss the Founders' debate about how much power the national government should have in comparison to the states. Students will categorize key federalism powers, and analyze the case of McCulloch v. Maryland.

In an extension activity, students will trace the historical debate over federalism back to the debates of the founders who wrote the Constitution and to the Federalist and Antifederalist political parties. In a second extension activity, students will analyze a wide range of current event issues that demonstrate the controversies over federalism that persist today and will take a stand on where government power should be held.

Relevant Subjects:
  • Civics/Government

  • U.S. History

  • Law

  • English/Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • define federalism;

  • classify the powers associated with federalism;

  • analyze the Supreme Court case McCulloch v. Maryland;

  • describe the views of early Founders in their debate about how much strength the national government should have compared to state governments (with Optional Extension Activity A);

  • apply the concept of federalism through the analysis of contemporary issues (with Optional Extension Activity B).


National Standards for History in Schools
Available online at

Standard 2: Historical Comprehension
A. Identify the author or source of the historical document or narrative and assess its credibility.
B. Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage.
C. Identify the central question(s) the historical narrative addresses.
D. Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations.
E. Read historical narratives imaginatively.
F. Appreciate historical perspectives.
G. Draw upon data in historical maps.
H. Utilize visual, mathematical, and quantitative data.

National Standards for Civics and Government
Available online at

Standard III. How Does the Government Established by the Constitution Embody the Purposes, Values, and Principles of American Democracy?
A. How are power and responsibility distributed, shared, and limited in the government established by the U.S. Constitution?
B. How is the national government organized and what does it do?
C. How are state and local governments organized and what do they do?
D. What is the place of law in the American constitutional system?
E. How does the American political system provide for choice and opportunities for participation?

Standards for the English Language Arts
Available online at

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.



PBS series THE SUPREME COURT, Episode 1: "One Nation Under Law"

Segment One: "Marshall's View of Federalism"
Examining Marshall's views on constitutional federal power. (4:54)

Segment Two: "McCulloch v. Maryland"
Did Congress have the authority to establish a national bank? Did the Maryland law unconstitutionally interfere with congressional powers? (3:18)

Segment Three: Optional Extension Activity A = "Having a Strong National Government"
Historical views on the balance of power between states and the national government. (6:08)


  • PBS series THE SUPREME COURT, Episode 1: "One Nation Under Law"

  • DVD player/television

  • overhead projector or blackboard

  • newsprint or flip-chart paper

  • markers

  • Handouts/Transparencies:

    • Transparency #1: Shared Powers -- Download

    • Handout #1: Federalism Classification Activity -- Download

    • Transparency #2: Blank for Federalism Classification Activity -- Download

    • Answer Key: Federalism Classification Activity -- Download

    • Handout #2: McCulloch v. Maryland -- Download

  • Handouts/Transparencies for Optional Extension Activities:

    • Optional Handout #3: Guided Questions for Watching "One Nation Under Law" -- Download

    • Optional Transparency #3: Federalism Debate Prompts -- Download

    • Optional Handout #4A: Federalism and Medical Marijuana Laws -- Download

    • Optional Handout #4B: Federalism and Physician-Assisted Suicide -- Download

    • Optional Handout #4C: Federalism and the Debate Over a Proposed National School Test -- Download

    • Optional Handout #4D: Federalism and the Clash Over Federal and State Environmental Regulation -- Download

    • Teacher Talking Points for Current Federalism Controversies -- Download


  1. After reviewing the lesson plan and optional extension activities, decide which part(s) of the lesson you plan to teach.

  2. Collect and prepare the necessary materials, including student handouts, which are found above. If possible, copy each of the handouts on to a different color of paper. This will help you and your students keep track of which handout they should be working with at a given time.

  3. Look at Handout #2: McCulloch v. Maryland, especially the part that gives students the main arguments on each side of the case. Decide if your students have the skills and/or experience to come up with these arguments on their own without these prompts. If so, you may not want to copy that part of the handout for them. Deleting this part of the handout would increase critical thinking and would also likely add time to the lesson.

  4. Prepare all necessary materials.

  5. Download the video segments used in the lesson, or cue the film to the first segment, "Marshall's View of Federalism," where you see Akhil Reed Amar in profile and he is saying "America's founders were children of the Enlightenment."

  6. If you prefer to predetermine student groups and partner sets for your class, review the lesson plan in advance to find out when groups or partners are necessary and preassign students to work together.

  7. Consider inviting a local, state, and/or national legislator to help you teach this lesson.

Like most law-related education lessons, this lesson can be enhanced by inviting resource people from the community to help you teach. Involving resource people is an element of "best practices" in law-related education. They can make the lessons more interesting and provide personal knowledge of the topic. Research also indicates that adult-student bonding [with resource people] is a key for helping some young people overcome risk factors.

To be most effective, community resource people should be well prepared and integrated into interactive class activities. They should not simply lecture. To that end, be sure to send a lesson plan to your resource people in advance and discuss how you will co-teach the lesson.