Alison L. LaCroix
Federalism refers to the constitutional and political structure of the United States of America, according to which political power is divided among multiple levels of government: the national level of government (also referred to as the “federal” or “general” government) and that of the states. It is a multilayered system of government that reserves some powers to component entities while also establishing an overarching level of government with a specified domain of authority. The structures of federalism are set forth in the Constitution of the United States, although some related ideas and practices predated the founding period and others have developed since. The balance between federal and state power has shifted throughout U.S. history, with assertions of broad national power meeting challenges from supporters of states’ rights and state sovereignty. Federalism is a fundamental value of the American political system, and it has been a controversial political and legal question since the founding period.
Law in early America came from many sources. To focus exclusively on the English common law excludes other vital sources including (but not limited to) civil law, canon law, lex mercatoria (the law merchant), and custom. Also, the number of sources increases the farther back in time one goes and the greater the geographic area under consideration.
By the 18th century, common law had come to dominate, but not snuff out, other competing legal traditions, in part due to the numerical, political, military, and linguistic advantages of its users. English colonists were well-acquainted with the common law, but after arriving in the New World, the process of adaptation to new experiences and new surroundings meant that English common law would undergo numerous alterations.
Colonists in early America had to create legal explanations for the dispossession of Native American land and the appropriation of labor by enslaved Native Americans and Africans. Their colonial charters provided that all colonial law must conform to English law, but deviations began to appear in several areas almost from the first moment of colonization. When controversies arose within the colonies, not all disagreements were settled in courts: churches and merchants provided alternative settings to arbitrate disputes. In part, other groups provided mediation because there were so few trained lawyers and judges available in 17th-century colonies. By the 18th century, however, the number of trained practitioners increased, and the sophistication of legal knowledge in the colonies grew. The majority of legal work handled by colonial lawyers concerned contracts and property.
Law and the language of rights became more widely used by early Americans as the English attempted to tighten their control over the colonists in the mid-18th century. Rights and law became firmly linked with the Revolution in the minds of Americans, so much so that law, rights, and the American Revolution continue to form an integral part of American national identity.
Steven K. Green
Separation of church and state has long been viewed as a cornerstone of American democracy. At the same time, the concept has remained highly controversial in the popular culture and law. Much of the debate over the application and meaning of the phrase focuses on its historical antecedents. This article briefly examines the historical origins of the concept and its subsequent evolutions in the nineteenth century.