Federalism proposes the union of many States to form the same country.

What is Federalism?

Federalism can be defined as the political doctrine that proposes the creation of a multiple, diverse State, in which various states, provinces, cantons, or regions associate to form a single government.

Some of the functions, freedoms, and obligations of regional sovereignty are delegated to the central government. This means that many States come together to form the same country and govern themselves as a whole, but without completely losing their autonomy.

Thus, the states governed by federalism have two types of government:

  1. Regional or state government. Its action is autonomous but circumscribed to the limits of its province.
  2. National or federal government. Its action is throughout the country, where the exercise of central executive power and the country’s foreign policy resides.

Something similar happens with justice: there are federal courts and regional courts.

History of federalism

Hugo Grotius extensively developed the theme of federalism.
Hugo Grotius extensively developed the theme of federalism.

Federalism has its precursor in the alliances between the Hebrew tribes of antiquity or the leagues between city-states of Ancient Greece.

These alliances used to be motivated by the need to face a common enemy.

However, the first theoretician of federalism was Johannes Althusius (1557-1638), author of the first theses on federalism and popular sovereignty.

Subsequently, the theme was developed by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and above all by Charles de Secondat (Montesquieu) (1689-1755), author of the most important work of the time on these matters: The spirit of the laws.

In the fight against theocracy in Renaissance Europe, he fought to separate the State and the Catholic Church, which ruled together in the Old Regime of Feudalism. In this context, the federal republic was proposed as an alternative to the Absolutist Monarchical State, where the King made all the decisions.

Later, the anarchists would appropriate the term federalism to express their disagreement with the creation of a single and general State, following the guidelines of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Opposite to centralism

In centralism, the government is exercised through emissaries sent to each province.
In centralism, the government is exercised through emissaries sent to each province.

Federalism and centralism are opposite political regimes. Centralism prefers the formation of a monolithic country, in a block, which concentrates all power and responsibilities in a single government.

In this type of regime, the government is exercised over the entire national territory through emissaries (elected by the central power) sent to each province.

On the contrary, federalism proposes the organized coexistence of more or less autonomous States, which cede only part of their powers to a central power.

Types of federalism

Two forms of federalism can be distinguished:

  1. Symmetrical federalism. Based on the equality of competencies between the federated States. Each one of them has the same powers and responsibilities, achieving a more or less homogeneous federal State.
  2. Asymmetric federalism. Certain federal states enjoy a greater margin of freedom or autonomy than others, usually due to cultural, social, or historical reasons.


Under federalism, each province or state can operate on its own if it prefers.
Under federalism, each province or state can operate on its own if it prefers.

An important element in federalism is the possibility of decentralizing power. This means that each province or State exercises the minimum bureaucratic, legal, or social powers that guarantee its proper functioning.

In this way, each province operated on its own, without needing the approval or support of the federal government, as far as possible. This refers especially to the management of justice, the administration of basic services, social and educational decisions, etc.

Causes of federalism

The reasons that various territories or national states may have to associate with a federative entity generally point to:

  • The extension of its territory. Federal governments are ideal for vast or extensive countries since the most basic daily decisions and resources can be made independently and expeditiously.
  • Differences in the population. Federalist countries are often unions of sovereign states made up of populations that are ethnically, culturally, or linguistically very different, so that in this political system they can group without sacrificing their individualities.
  • Weakness against a common enemy. On many occasions, federations arise as a joint response of weak States or nations, which separately would be unable to deal with a serious situation, such as an enemy or a crisis of some kind, and find that by adding their forces they can be more powerful and win.

Weaknesses of federalism

Deep inequalities between states have led to separatism.
Deep inequalities between states have led to separatism.

Many federal regimes have failed throughout history due to certain internal conditions, such as constant friction between the federal government and regional governments.

The conflicts were often a consequence of the imbalance of power in the face of the federal structure. In other words, some regions were notoriously and irremediably more influential in decision-making than others, due to their economic, historical, or population importance.

In some cases, deep inequalities have led to separatism, especially when it comes to nations that do not share a language, culture, or religion.

Federal constitution

The first step toward a federation is the drafting of a federal constitution: a Magna Carta where the foundations are laid for the agreement between the various territories or the various nations that want a common government.

This document establishes the terms in which the union will take place and details the distribution of powers, responsibilities, and freedoms. It is a legal text that goes above the regional constitutions with which each state or province decides to govern itself.

Federalists and Centralists

In Argentina, unitary and federal clashed in several civil wars.
In Argentina, unitary and federal clashed in several civil wars.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th in Latin America, there were numerous clashes between two opposing political tendencies. They could not agree on the ideal country model to found the young American republics.

This situation eventually led to various civil wars (after the Independence Wars against Spain ), in which those who advocated a federal government and those who preferred a centralist one faced each other.

Such was the case of the Federal War (1859-1863) in Venezuela, a conflict in which conservatives and liberals (also called federals) clashed to the death for five years.

Another example is the Argentine Civil Wars (1814-1880) where the Federal Party and the Unitarian Party clashed on numerous occasions to define by arms the model that would govern the Republic.

Differences between federation and confederation

A Confederation allows its members (which can be provinces or nation-states) to retain large amounts of autonomy, yielding only some of its functions to the central power, and being able to disassociate at will, with few limitations.

The federations, on the other hand, sacrifice those kinds of freedoms in exchange for a more solid and strict global organization. A greater quota of autonomy is sacrificed in exchange for a representative government.

Some examples of confederations are the European Union or the State made up of the nations of Serbia and Montenegro.

Examples of federalism

The USSR, now defunct, is a good example of federalism.
The USSR, now defunct, is a good example of federalism.

Some cases of federalism exist today in the governments of countries such as Australia, India, Germany, Burma, Brazil, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, and Venezuela.

So were the USSR (Union of Socialist Soviet Republics) and the Federal Republic of Central America, both now defunct. Another good example, although in another field, is that of FIFA, the International Federation of Football Associations.

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