The Bill of Rights and Federalism

Explores the powers reserved to the states as provided by the Tenth Amendment. Explains the Founders’ understanding of a federalist system and the expansion and contraction of the federal government’s power.

What is the Commerce Clause?

Clock 50 minutes

Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce, granted in the Commerce Clause, is often invoked as justification for laws regulating a wide variety of economic activities. How much power does the Commerce Clause allow the federal government to have over the states? This lesson examines this question by looking at the principle behind this clause, the Founders intentions, and how the Supreme Court has interpreted the clause throughout American History.

Founding Principles

Federalism image

Federalism

The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

Overview

The battle between the power of the federal government and state governments has been an ongoing struggle during the course of our nation’s history. Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, granted in the Commerce Clause, is often invoked as justification for laws regulating a wide variety of economic activities. How much power does the Commerce Clause allow the federal government to have over the states? These questions have been addressed by the Supreme Court, but with varying results. With a couple of notable exceptions, the Court’s decisions after the New Deal resulted in expansion of the federal government’s power under the Commerce Clause.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Analyze the Founders’ intentions in giving Congress the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.”
  • Understand how power granted to Congress in the Commerce Clause has been interpreted by the Supreme Court through American history.
  • Evaluate arguments for and against federalism as a principle.
  • Determine whether federalism helps or harms freedom.

Materials

  • Handout A: Background Essay—How Has the Supreme Court Interpreted the Commerce Clause?
  • Handout B: Federalism: For or Against?
  • Handout C: Commerce Clause Timeline

Standards

  • NCHS (9-12): Era III, Standards 2A, 3B, and 3C
  • CCE (9-12): IB1, IIA1, IID3, IIIA1, IIIA2, IIIB1, IIIC1, IIIC3
  • NCSS: Strands 6 and 10

Background 10 min. (day before)

On the day prior to class, have students read Handout A: Background Essay—How Has the Supreme Court Interpreted the Commerce Clause?

Activities 20-25 min.

Divide students into groups of three or four and have them complete Handout B: Federalism: For or Against?

Wrap-up 10-15 min.

  1. Go over the chart and clarify any questions students have.
    • ƒƒArguments in favor of federalism: 2, 3, 5
    • ƒƒArguments against federalism: 1, 4, 6
    • ƒƒCould be both/neither: 7, 8, 9
  2. Wrap up with a large group discussion.
    • ƒƒWhat arguments of their own did students write in the chart?
    • ƒƒWhich arguments are most convincing?
    • ƒƒHow much power did the Founders believe the national government would have over individuals?
    • What trade-offs are involved in giving the federal government increased power over states and individuals?

Homework

  1. Have students complete Handout C: Commerce Clause Timeline.
  2. Have students find additional examples of Commerce Clause rulings and add them to a larger version of the graph in Handout C. Using this background knowledge and observation of current events, predict what direction Commerce Clause rulings are likely to take in the near future. What kinds of variables are likely to affect these rulings? How do these issues reflect the issues of federalism and limited government?

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