The Powers of National and State Governments


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This lesson examines the different jurisdictions and roles of national and state governments. Students will analyze how actions of the national and state governments affect their daily lives.

Grade Levels



Students will:

  • define the term federalism;
  • identify the powers granted to the national government;
  • identify the powers granted to state governments; and
  • identify powers shared by the national and state governments.

Estimated Time

3 days

Materials Needed


Day 1

  1. Remind students that after the Revolutionary War the states basically governed themselves. The people eventually discovered that this form of government, which differed from region to region, would make it very difficult to stay unified. The Constitution was soon drafted to provide a single governing document over all and to help the concept of one nation survive. Many delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 wanted state governments to keep most of their powers; other delegates argued that only a strong national government could handle the problems facing our country. The framers of the Constitution decided to establish a government based on federalism. In this system, power is shared between the national and state governments.
  2. Divide the class into three groups. Ask each group to complete the Interactive Learning Module: An Ordinary Day. Group 1 should list all of the policies in the module that involve the national government. Group 2 should list all the policies in the module that involve state governments. Group 3 should list policies that involve both national and state governments.
  3. Once students have completed the module, ask students to explain the roles of the national and state governments.

Days 2 & 3

  1. First, provide students with a basic understanding of how the Supreme Court operates and its power relative to the other two branches. The Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison (, which established the Supreme Court's right to judicial review, might be helpful. The discussion does not need to be extensive so long as the basic concept of judicial review is explained.
  2. Provide students with copies of the Tenth Amendment( and Article 1, Section 10 ( of the Constitution. Discuss with students the fact that resolutions to conflicts between state and federal law are determined by how the Supreme Court interprets and applies the Constitution when such conflicts arise.
  3. After student have read the sections of the Constitution, lead a class discussion using these or similar questions.
    • How much power does the federal government have when it regulates interstate commerce?
    • How much power does the state have to regulate intrastate commerce?
    • How much taxing power does the state/federal government have mutually and/or separately?
    • What are the limits on the state's power to protect its citizens?
    • Does the federal government have police powers which may conflict with the state's police powers?
    • What power does the state have to regulate "other" behavior of its citizens?
  4. Provide students with a number of fact situations (between 4-6, as time permits) from actual U.S. Supreme Court cases, listed below. (Note: This information, usually a short paragraph, is available in the Facts of the Case section at each of the Web pages listed below.) Ask students to identify which level of government should have prevailed in each of the cases, according to the provisions of the U.S. Constitution discussed earlier. Below are listed some potential U.S. Supreme Court cases to draw from, though others may be used:
  5. Choose four cases (not already used) and provide students with either the entire case decision or just the title, date decided, fact description, and the rationale for the opinion of the prevailing side in the court decision as well as the rationale of one or more of the Justices who dissented. Divide the class into four groups of three or four students each. Have each group discuss the following questions and write a short summary of their discussion. Their summaries should include a description of the facts in each case and a short statement of what they believe the Court's rule would be based on this case decisions, if circumstances like these occur in the future
    • Which side won and by what margin?
    • For which side did each of the judges vote?
    • What were the key reasons for positions taken by the prevailing side and the dissenting judges?
  6. On the following day, have each student group briefly present their case and summaries.
  7. Lead a short discussion summarizing how this part of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 10, and the Tenth Amendment specifically) affects their everyday life. Also discuss the fact that the provisions of the Constitution do not have inherent, self-evident, or universally accepted definitions. The interpretation of what the powers of the state are as indicated in Amendment 10 and Article 1, Section 10, depend on the interpretation of the members of the Supreme Court.
  8. Provide students with information about how Supreme Court justices are chosen. (NOTE; this activity may move into Day 4, depending on the length of student reports on Day 3.) Use information from the Supreme Court Web page "About the Supreme Court" (link at—or have students work in the computer lab to investigate the information about the Supreme Court on this Web page. It is important that students have an understanding of what the provisions of the Constitution mean, but it is equally important that they understand that the Supreme Court consists of human beings who bring their life experiences and political/legal beliefs to the Court. And although they are very intelligent, qualified Justices, their decisions reflect their life experiences. This discussion should also help students realize the impact of Supreme Court decisions have on their everyday lives.

Extension Activity

Invite a Senator or Representative from your congressional district and a state legislator to come to the class. Ask them to discuss the powers of the federal and state governments. If they are unable to attend, you might also look into inviting a former Member of Congress to visit. Contact the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress to find out if a retired Member lives in your area. Visit this Web site:


Basic Concepts and Processes

Ask your students to respond to the following to assess their knowledge of key concepts taught in this lesson.

  1. Define the term federalism.
  2. Identify the powers granted to the national government.
  3. Identify the powers granted to state governments.
  4. Identify powers shared by the national and state governments.

Lesson Plan Feedback

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