What is a Federal Government? - Definition, Powers & Benefits - Video & Lesson Transcript | Study.com

What is a Federal Government? - Definition, Powers & Benefits

Lesson Transcript
Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

A Federal Government is a nation's system of designating power, whether to a central government or local state government. Learn the benefits of power distribution through a case example (The United States), and explore the structure and benefits of a federal government system. Updated: 09/22/2021

Definition of a Federal Government

Are you a fan of Hollywood cop films? If you are, you may know that a common plot line in these movies is jurisdiction friction, or when some kind of tension between local police (usually the hero) and federal investigators (usually the antagonist) takes place over who has control of an investigation. Take, for example, the film Rush Hour. In this movie, an LAPD police officer (Chris Tucker) tries to help a fellow Chinese cop (Jackie Chan) find the abducted daughter of the Chinese Ambassador to America. While they face many road blocks, one of the biggest obstacles in their investigation is the FBI, which orders Tucker and Chan to stop their investigation because it is outside of local jurisdiction and a matter of federal jurisdiction.

What this common Hollywood plot line reveals is the nature of a federal government. A federal government is a system of dividing up power between a central national government and local state governments that are connected to one another by the national government. Some areas of public life are under the control of the national government, and some areas are under control of the local governments. For this reason, cop films like to create drama by making the federal government and local government bump heads over who should be investigating the crime at hand. Federal government systems usually have a constitution that specifies what areas of public life the national government will take control over and what areas of public life the state governments will take control over.

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  • 2:34 Division of Power
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Benefits of A Federal Government

Why does the United States have a federal government but not Great Britain? The answer has to do with size. Federal governments are best used in large countries where there exists a diverse group of people with diverse needs but a common culture that unites them together.

For example, think of the difference between Wyoming (the least densely populated state) and New Jersey (the most densely populated state). Clearly, the needs at the local level of each state will be different, so they should have different local governments to address those needs. Nonetheless, both states share a common culture and interest and, therefore, are united by the national government.

Federal governments help address the wide variety of needs of a geographically large country. It is no wonder, then, that federal governments exist in large countries, like the United States, Mexico, Germany, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and others.

Federal Government in the United States: Division of Power

In the United States, the Constitution created the federal system by limiting the activities of the national government to a few areas, such as collecting taxes, providing for defense, borrowing money on credit, regulating commerce, creating a currency, establishing post offices and post roads, granting patents, creating lower courts, and declaring war. The 10th amendment of the Constitution, on the other hand, gave all other powers to the states. As a result, any specific power not given to the Federal government is a power of the state government. The chart explains which powers are given to the federal government and which are given to state governments.


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Additional Activities

Prompts About Federal Government:

Essay Prompt 1:

In at least three to four paragraphs, write an essay that defines federal government and describes the characteristics of a federal government. Consider what factors help determine a nation's need for a federal government.

Example: A federal government is suitable for a nation of large size and diversity.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of approximately two to three paragraphs that explains how the division of power between the federal and state government exists in the United States. Be sure to explain the role of the 10th amendment.

Example: All power not specifically delegated to the federal government is in the hands of the individual states.

Essay Prompt 3:

Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that describes how the federal government can influence state governments through block grants and categorical grants.

Example: The federal government can deny funding to a state that does not comply with federal laws.

List Prompt 1:

Make a list of at least seven powers reserved for the federal government in the US.

Tip: Refer to the chart in the lesson, but do try to recall as many from memory as possible!

List Prompt 2:

Make a list of at least five powers given to the states in the US federal system.

Example: Have state and local elections.

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