[ fed-er-uh-liz-uhm ]
/ ˈfɛd ər əˌlɪz əm /
Save This Word!

the federal principle of government.
U.S. History.
  1. advocacy of the federal system of government.
  2. (initial capital letter) the principles of the Federalist party.


Click for a side-by-side comparison of meanings. Use the word comparison feature to learn the differences between similar and commonly confused words.
Should you take this quiz on “shall” versus “should”? It should prove to be a quick challenge!
Question 1 of 6
Which form is used to state an obligation or duty someone has?

Origin of federalism

An Americanism dating back to 1780–90; federal + -ism
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022

How to use federalism in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for federalism (1 of 2)

/ (ˈfɛdərəˌlɪzəm) /

the principle or a system of federal union
advocacy of federal union

Derived forms of federalism

federalist, noun, adjectivefederalistic, adjective

British Dictionary definitions for federalism (2 of 2)

/ (ˈfɛdərəˌlɪzəm) /

US history the principles and policies of the Federalist party
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for federalism


A system of government in which power is divided between a national (federal) government and various regional governments. As defined by the United States Constitution, federalism is a fundamental aspect of American government, whereby the states are not merely regional representatives of the federal government, but are granted independent powers and responsibilities. With their own legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch, states are empowered to pass, enforce, and interpret laws, provided they do not violate the Constitution. This arrangement not only allows state governments to respond directly to the interests of their local populations, but also serves to check the power of the federal government. Whereas the federal government determines foreign policy, with exclusive power to make treaties, declare war, and control imports and exports, the states have exclusive power to ratify the Constitution. Most governmental responsibilities, however, are shared by state and federal governments: both levels are involved in such public policy issues as taxation, business regulation, environmental protection, and civil rights.

notes for federalism

The precise extent of state and federal responsibility has always been controversial. Republican administrations, for example, have tended to grant more authority to the states, thereby encouraging political and economic freedom but discouraging comprehensive social welfare. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court left the interpretation of many civil rights guarantees to the states, resulting in widespread discrimination against minorities.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.