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

Intro   Learning Activities   Culminating   Cross-curricular   Community

Introductory Activity (10 minutes):

  1. Begin by asking students to create a three-column chart on their own paper. Project Transparency #1: Shared Powers on the overhead to illustrate how students should set up their paper. Tell students they have two to three minutes to complete the chart as they respond to the following questions:

    • What decisions do you believe your parents should make for you?

    • What decisions should you be able to make yourself?

    • What decisions should be made cooperatively?

  2. Once students have had the chance to respond to the prompt, take five minutes to discuss what they have brainstormed. Be sure to monitor the time. Record student answers on the overhead.

    Possible responses might include:

    Decisions Parents or Guardians Might Make Decisions Teenagers and Parents/Guardians Might Make Together Decisions Teenagers Might Make
    curfew clothes to wear food to eat
    age when a teenager can start to drive activities to do with friends structuring one's time
    appropriate age to date classes a teenager might take school activities to participate in

  3. After students generate a list, ask the following questions:

    • Did every student in the class have the same perspective about who might make certain decisions?

    • Have you and your parents or guardians ever had a conflict over who gets to make certain decisions?

    • Why is it important that some decisions are made exclusively by parents or guardians?

  4. Explain that the division of power between teenagers and parents is similar to the division of power between the states and the federal government. This division of government power is known as federalism.

Show students the definition of "federalism" on the board/overhead.

Federalism is the division of powers among the local, state, and national governments.


Historical Views on a Weak Versus Strong Central Government (10 minutes):

  1. Explain the following background to students:

    In the early years of our country, leaders had deep disagreements about how power should be balanced between the states and the national government. In fact, two political parties emerged -- one that favored a strong central government and one that distrusted a strong central government and felt most power should reside with the states.

    Before the Constitution was ratified, these groups were known as the Federalists and Antifederalists. At the point in time we will be analyzing in the DVD, the Antifederalists had evolved into the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists were led by John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall.

  2. Remind students that John Marshall became one of the most important chief justices in the history of the Supreme Court. His views on how power should be shared or balanced between the national government and the states shaped much of his work and shaped the country.

  3. Ask students to take out a pen and a blank sheet of paper. They should copy the following prompt:

    Summarize John Marshall's concerns about federalism.

  4. As students copy the prompt, prepare video segment #1, "Marshall's View of Federalism," or cue the film to where you see Akhil Reed Amar in profile and he is saying, "America's founders were children of the Enlightenment."

    Play segment #1, "Marshall's View of Federalism." Pause the clip after the narrator says, "The Continental Army was nearly destroyed by the indifference of the states. The Continental congress was powerless to help," and you see drawn images of war.

    Clarify that Marshall's opinion was shaped by the failures evident under the Articles of Confederation. (If necessary, review the structure of government under the Articles that gave states nearly all power and the problems under that government.)

    Start the film segment again. Stop the film when you see Akhil Reed Amar and he says, "When individual states misbehave, John Marshall's court slaps them down."

    After the segment has concluded, give students one to two minutes to respond to the prompt and then review their answers.

Federalism Activity (20 minutes):

  1. Explain that as the Constitution developed, views like Marshall's were balanced with views of scholars and politicians who believed that the federal government should be weak and that most power should reside in the states. In some ways, the Constitution became a compromise document that laid out that division of power.

    The way power has traditionally been divided and shared between the states and the national government has shifted over time.

  2. Ask a student to volunteer to pass out Handout #1: Federalism Classification Activity.

    Explain that the chart they are about to complete will give them a rough idea of the shared and divided powers of different levels of government.

    Once each student has the handout, review the definition of federalism and the directions. Ask students to classify the powers as belonging to the federal government, state governments, or shared. Give them 10 minutes to classify the powers. Write the ending time on the board.

    NOTE: You may opt to have students work alone, in pairs or guide the students through the activity as a class. While the students work on this portion of the lesson, the teacher should prepare the downloaded video clip, "McCulloch v. Maryland or cue your film to when you hear the narrator say, "Marshall's crowning decision came in 1819 in a case involving the Second Bank of the United States," and you see the court document entitled "James McCulloch v. The State of Maryland."

  3. Project Transparency #2: Blank Federalism Classification Activity and invite students to come to the overhead projector to write their answers onto the transparency.

    NOTE: As an alternative or if time is short, you may wish to simply project the answer key instead of the blank answer key.

    Review student answers using the key provided at the end of this lesson plan. Encourage students to make corrections on their papers and clarify examples that were difficult for them.

    Explain that even though this chart provides us with general guidelines about how power is shared under federalism, there are still numerous current debates over how the power is handled. (If you are planning to use the second extension activity, explain that students will study some of these current controversies in an activity later in this lesson.)

Summary Discussion for Day One (5 minutes):

Ask students the following questions:
  • Who can define the term "federalism"?

  • How did John Marshall think power should be balanced between state and national governments in his day?

  • Consider the Federalism Classification chart. Did the division of power surprise you in any way? Explain your answer.

Tell students their analysis of federalism will continue the following day.


Before class begins prepare the downloaded video clip, "McCulloch v. Maryland or cue your film to when you hear the narrator say, "Marshall's crowning decision came in 1819 in a case involving the Second Bank of the United States," and you see the court document entitled "James McCulloch v. The State of Maryland."

McCulloch v. Maryland (35 minutes):

  1. Ask a student to summarize the key ideas from the previous class. This will help refresh students' memories and help those who may have missed class. If necessary, refer again to the summary questions for yesterday in this lesson plan.

  2. Explain that just as teenagers and parents clash over control to make decisions (referring to the introductory activity), the national government and the states have experienced a similar power struggle.

    Explain that the next DVD clip will illustrate the Supreme Court's first major case that attempted to help resolve this conflict.

    Distribute Handout #2: McCulloch v. Maryland. When all students have the handout, direct them to focus on the questions in Part 1 as they watch the clip.

    Play film segment #2, "McCulloch v. Maryland or start your film when you hear the narrator say, "Marshall's crowning decision came in 1819 in a case involving the Second Bank of the United States," and you see the court document entitled "James McCulloch v. The State of Maryland." Stop the segment when you see Justice Roberts and he says, "People can debate whether Lincoln's expression is more eloquent than Marshall's, but it's the same sentiment and the same thought and, I think, borne in each case from the fact that they were fighting to preserve the Union."

  3. After the DVD clip is over, discuss the questions found in Part 1 of the handout.

    1. Who were the major players in the case?

      The state of Maryland and the federal government represented by National Bank cashier James McCulloch.

    2. What was at the root of the conflict?

      The state of Maryland believed that the federal government did not have the constitutional power to establish a national bank. In response, the state passed a taxation law that would hinder the bank's profitability. James McCulloch refused to pay the tax in defense of the federal government's right to develop the bank.

    3. What did the Court decide in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland? What reasons did the Court give for its decision?

      The Court ruled in favor of the federal government. Using the "necessary and proper" clause, the federal government had the power to create the bank in order to regulate and encourage interstate commerce. In addition, the state could not tax a "national entity."

  4. Assign students to work in groups of three to five and ask them to move to sit in those groups. Give each group several sheets of flip-chart paper and markers.

  5. Direct students to Part 2 of Handout #2.

    Review all three steps of the directions. Confirm that students understand their tasks. Write the ending times for each part of the activity on the board. Ask students to begin.

    As students begin the activity, the teacher (and resource people) should circulate around the room to observe and to assist groups that need help. After about 15 minutes, remind students to move on to writing their scripts or articles.

    NOTE: You may wish to set up the room for the student presentations.


  1. When students have completed their work, ask a representative of each group to present its news story.

  2. Ask students to compare and contrast the news stories they heard, saw, or read. If necessary, clarify any points of fact that students were confused about.

  3. For homework (or in class if time permits), ask students to respond to the following essay prompt:

    • Define "federalism."

    • Explain how Supreme Court's decision in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland helped to further refine the balance of power under federalism.

    • Do you agree of disagree with the decision made in McCulloch v. Maryland? Explain your answer.


The essay reinforces writing skills that English classes emphasize.


Students will make connections to their personal lives by analyzing the family decision-making process and the parallels made to democratic principles. With Extension Activity B, students will also make connections to the real world by analyzing current event topics.

Student Materials:
  • pencil or pen

  • paper

  • Handouts/Transparencies:

    • Handout #1: 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 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

Resources Used for Lesson Development:

OPTIONAL EXTENSION ACTIVITY A: Historical Views on the Balance of Power Between States and the National Government (35 minutes):

  1. Distribute Optional Handout #3: Guided Questions for Watching "One Nation Under Law." Review the directions.

  2. Prepare the downloaded video clip, "Having a Strong National Government", or cue your film to when you hear the narrator say, "It was the tumble of partisan politics - not the imperatives of the ConstitutionÍ"

    Start the film segment and play it until historian R. Kent Newmyer says, "So you have Marshall holding the Bible, Jefferson has his hand on the Bible swearing to uphold the Constitution, which Marshall is absolutely sure he was going to destroy."

    Once the clip is complete, ask students to work with a neighbor for two or three minutes to complete the handout.

  3. Discuss the questions and answers as a class.

    1. Why did the French Revolution worry the Federalists?

      The Federalists saw that the French Revolution devolved into mass murder of the aristocracy, anarchy, and the destruction of property. They believed it was dangerous to let an angry mob go unchecked.

    2. What did Jefferson and his supporters think about the French Revolution?

      The French Revolution was not entirely bad, in fact, it could be seen as a good. revolution, and bloodshed may be necessary to keep the power of the central government in check.

    3. What did Jefferson fear when Hamilton said the national government should have a standing army?

      Jefferson believed the new, increasingly strong national government was like a new monarchy -- and not very different than the authority Great Britain held over the American colonies. He feared that if the national government had a standing army, it would use the army to oppress common people and to keep all the power to itself.

    4. When judges appointed by Federalists enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts, what happened to politicians and others who criticized President Adams in writing or in speeches?

      They were thrown in jail.

    5. Why was the swearing in of Thomas Jefferson as president ironic?

      Jefferson was sworn in by Chief Justice John Marshall, a leader of the Federalists and someone Jefferson completely hated (politically). To quote historian Newmyer, "So, you have Marshall holding the Bible, Jefferson has his hand on the Bible swearing to uphold the Constitution, which Marshall is absolutely sure he [Jefferson] was going to destroy."

      Ask students to hypothesize on how the issues highlighted in the clip may have laid the groundwork for debates over how much power the national government should have.

      Answers will vary.

      Ask students:
      • Do you feel that the United States has a weak or strong central government today?

  4. Explain to students that they will be participating in a brief structured debate to review and apply the arguments for a weak or strong central government.

    Divide the class into two groups: Advocates for a Weak Central Government and Advocates for a Strong Central Government. The students will be responsible for debating from the perspective of their assigned group.

    To facilitate discussion, display the prompt statements on Optional Transparency #3: Federalism Debate Prompts. Using their notes, the students will have two to three minutes to debate the issues. The teacher should call on students with raised hands to ensure that the discussion runs smoothly.

  5. Ask the following question:

    Did anyone have to argue from a position that they did not agree with? Was this easy or difficult to do?

OPTIONAL EXTENSION ACTIVITY B: Current Issues and Federalism (45 minutes):

  1. Explain Activity: In this portion of the lesson, the students will look at current event issues that deal with federalism.

    Ask students to pull out a blank sheet of paper that they can use to record their answers. Then break students into small groups and ask them to move to work in their groups.

    NOTE: Ideally, the groups will have no more than three to five students in each. If you have more than 25 students, you may want to consider having two groups working on an issue. For example, you could ask two small groups to consider the problem posed in Optional Handout #4A.

    Once the students are in groups, distribute Optional Handout #4A: Federalism and Medical Marijuana to one group, Optional Handout #4B: Federalism and Physician-Assisted Suicide to another group, etc.

    Students should identify a group leader, a note taker, a timekeeper, and a presenter. As they work out their roles, give each group newsprint or flip-chart paper and markers.

    Clarify any questions students may have about the directions. Tell them they have 10 minutes to complete this portion of the activity. Write the ending time on the board.

    NOTE: Keep in mind that this could also be a station activity if time permits. The students would just analyze each of the issues, as opposed to just one.

  2. Group Work: Students will work in groups to read the issue summary and answer the questions. They will present their findings to the class. The students should record their answers to the questions on the newsprint to use as a visual when presenting to the class.

  3. Begin Group Presentations and Class Discussion:

    Ask a student volunteer to distribute the remaining handouts to the rest of the class. In other words, the small groups have only had the handout for their own current issue. Give all students all the Optional Handouts #4A-4D, so they can follow the group presentations better and take notes, if necessary.

    Invite the presenter(s) for each group to explain the issue and to report its finding. After each group reports about its current issue, lead a discussion using the Teacher Talking Points for Current Federalism Controversies, found at the end of this lesson plan.

  4. Summarize the lesson by asking students to draw connections between the issues. Discussion questions might include:

    • (If you taught Optional Extension Activity A) What arguments would a Federalist or Antifederalist have made if faced with a similar issue? (Select two or three issues to apply this question to help students make a connection to the Federalist/Antifederalist Activity earlier in the lesson.)

    • If the case has been heard by the Supreme Court, do you agree with the Court's decision? Why or why not?

    • If the case has not been heard, how do you think the Court might rule?

    • How is Issue A similar to or different from Issue B? (This question could be used to compare any of the issues.)

    • Can you identify another example of an issue involving federalism (other than the ones provided in the activity)?