Vertical and Horizontal Federalism in the Us


American federalism is dualistic — along with the subordination of states to federal law, there is an interstate equivalence. Verticality justifies Federal bodies’ supremacy over municipalities, as set out in the First Principle of the Supreme Court. On the contrary, historically, U.S. subjects have sought to achieve equal rights, which led to the writing of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The texts of these amendments confirm the equal rights and powers of the subjects and the possibility of creating and managing their political climate.


There are several ways of the political structure of the country, among which federalism should be singled out. This type of state administration boils down to a desire to create a single integrated system of equal subjects, each of which has its own unique culture and climate. At the same time, it is essential to emphasize that a decisive factor in the federative structure is considered to be the equivalence of subjects and their authority to determine the local political structure. The United States is an excellent example of how federalism should work.

Two forms of federalism

Historically, there have been two forms of federalism in North America — horizontal and vertical ones. First of all, it should be said that this division is caused by the lack of explicit language in the U.S. Constitution’s text, which gives rise to different interpretations of the Article. Thus, horizontal federalism is understood as equal relations between all fifty states, while vertical federalism dictates the principles of relations between the federal center and the subjects. The historical context of the study reveals that for the formation of this form of federalism, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution adopted back in 1791, played a decisive role. In addition, the first principle of the U.S. Supreme Court, which states the priority of federal law over municipal law, is also relevant to this topic. The purpose of this essay is to discuss in detail horizontal and vertical federalism in the context of these documents.

Vertical federalism

Conflict of ideologies

At the very beginning of more than two hundred years of history, there was a fierce political battle in the United States between trends towards centralization and decentralization of power. First and foremost, the conflict concerned the definition of the phenomenon of relations between states and a clear division of competencies and powers between the Federation and individual states’ political bodies. The economic policy of the subjects became a reason for stimulating disagreements. In the period before the American Civil War, the states even had their monetary savings and were more autonomous in general, but the end of the war raised questions about the creation of a common economic space. However, achieving vertical power was not easy and instantaneous. There were many legal proceedings and cases on the way to the existing order. Among the most famous are the creation of the Bank of the United States, the case of McCulloch v. Maryland, and Gibbons v. Ogden (The Evolution of American Federalism). Ultimately, the conflict situations manifested themselves in the creation of bilateral federalism, which implies active trade relations between the states, and subordination to federal law.

The First Principle

In addition, the verticality of power became ensured by the political division of powers between the states concerning the federal center. Modern relations between federal courts and municipal courts are governed by several fundamental principles of lawmaking, the First of which should be highlighted. This Principle guarantees the supremacy of federal law over local state laws (Tarr 9). Moreover, the U.S. Constitution and laws have supremacy in any state, and the state territory itself is an integral part of the United States. Also, state municipalities have no right to establish customs and other duties and taxes at their borders and unilaterally withdraw from the United States. Finally, in conflict situations, disagreements are resolved in the direction of federal law if it operates within the framework of constitutional powers.

Further development

Over time, the trend towards vertical power and the smooth transition of significant powers from state to federal center became visible during Roosevelt’s period. During the war, during the domestic crisis, Roosevelt implemented the practice of financial concentration and the implementation of federal economic and social programs (The Evolution of American Federalism). In addition, the President’s will has achieved a significant increase in the power of the ruler and the number of numerous federal regulatory agencies.

The capital of the Federation

In addition to the well-known fifty states, the American state has a territorial unit that is not part of any state but does not have such a political status itself. This is the Federal District of Columbia, the seat of the U.S. government, and, therefore, the capital of the state. The U.S. Constitution has granted Congress exclusive legislative powers concerning the Federal District of Columbia. Thus, for example, the inhabitants of Washington are granted the right to self-government.

Horizontal federalism

Definition of horizontal federalism

From the point of view of the federative system, the discussion of horizontal federalism is of greater research interest because it touches upon the historical context of the unification of unique but equal subjects. As the history of the state’s development demonstrates, the USA actively developed intersubjective economic and social interaction even at the initial stages. In contrast to vertical federalism, horizontal power implies that American federalism is based on the principle of equal state equality (Federalism). Each of them has the same set of state and legal attributes and powers. This means that the federal center is not entitled to establish the advantages of some subjects to the detriment of others.

Amendments to the Constitution

Whereas vertical federalism is enshrined in the First Principle, the legally horizontal phenomenon is justified by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, adopted on 15 December 1791. The Ninth Amendment states that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. (Ninth Amendment). At the same time, the Tenth Amendment states that “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” (Tenth Amendment). In other words, the texts of both amendments give all states powers not assigned to the Federation.

Legal practice

The equality of the fifty subjects is realized through the daily political practice of the State. The authorities of one state cannot influence others, nor can they determine the political and economic climate anywhere except their territory. The states have equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House of Representatives and participate in the ratification of amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the President’s election. Moreover, horizontal federalism is expressed in regional associations of the Federation’s constituent entities, which establish particular forms of cooperation among themselves and act in their relations with the Federation not only as regional associations. However, such associations have no political character — they are mainly economic associations. In practice, the influence of such associations on federal policy is more significant than that of individual states.


To sum up, it must be admitted that the U.S. federal system has a dualistic nature. On the one hand, states are subject to federal law, and any conflict situations in the legal context are resolved in the direction of the center. On the other hand, states are in themselves equal subjects with the authority to conduct interstate economic and social interactions. As was shown, the First Principle of the Supreme Court played a significant role in establishing vertical federalism, while the Ninth and Tenth Amendments dictated horizontal federalism to the U.S. Constitution.

Works Cited

The Evolution of American Federalism.OER Services, n.d., 2020. Web.

Federalism: Basic Structure of Government.Lumen Learning, 2019, Web.

“Ninth Amendment.” Constitution Annotated, 2019, Web.

Tarr, Alan. “Judicial Federalism in the United States: Structure, Jurisdiction and Operation.” Revista de Investigações Constitucionais, vol. 2, no. 3, 2015, pp. 7-34.

“Tenth Amendment.” Constitution Annotated, 2019, Web.

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DemoEssays. "Vertical and Horizontal Federalism in the Us." December 25, 2022.