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federal government

federal government or federation, government of a union of states in which sovereignty is divided between a central authority and component state authorities. A federation differs from a confederation in that the central power acts directly upon individuals as well as upon states, thus creating the problem of dual allegiance. Substantial power over matters affecting the people as a whole, such as external affairs, commerce, coinage, and the maintenance of military forces, are usually granted to the central government. Nevertheless, retention of jurisdiction over local affairs by states is compatible with the federal system and makes allowance for local feelings. The chief political problem of a federal system of government is likely to be the allocation of sovereignty, because the need for unity among the federating states may conflict with their desire for autonomy. The Greek city-states failed to solve this problem, although religious and political federations were often attempted and the Aetolian and Achaean leagues had many of the institutions of federal government. The primacy of the central over the state governments was not resolved in the United States until after the Civil War. The distribution of powers between the federal and state governments is usually accomplished by means of a written constitution, for a federation does not exist if authority can be allocated by ordinary legislation. A fairly uniform legal system, as well as cultural and geographic affinities, is usually necessary for the success of a federation. Varieties of federation include the Swiss, where the federative principle is carried into the executive branch of government; the Australian, which closely reflects American states' rights and judicial doctrines; and the Canadian, which reverses common federative practice and allots residuary rights to the dominion government. Other examples of federal governments are the German Empire of 1871 and the present state of Germany, modern Russia, Mexico, South Africa, and India.

See J. Bryce, The American Commonwealth (rev. ed. 1959); K. Wheare, Federal Government (4th ed. 1964); D. J. Elazar, American Federalism (2d ed. 1972); W. H. Stewart, Concepts of Federalism (1984); H. Bakvis and W. M. Chandler, ed., Federalism and the Role of the State (1987); K. L. Hall, Federalism (1987).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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