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Activity 2

Essential Question

How has the relative power of federal versus state governments changed over time?


Major challenges to the nation, such as wars, often lead to increases of federal power. For example, the Great Depression impacted people’s lives and led to an increase in federal power as the federal government responded to the crisis by passing legislation to try to help those affected by the depression. FDR’s New Deal changed the nature of federalism in the United States in profound ways.

Instructional Strategies

Strategy 1

Using the Time Line

Use the computer lab to access the following website:
or provide all students with a copy of Timeline of Federalism.

Note: The author acknowledges the Close-UP Foundation for its ideas that are used in this activity.

Put the following purpose questions on the board or a transparency and have them review the time line:

  • What can you learn from this handout?
  • What changes in the idea of “Federalism” can you detect as you review the time line? Be prepared to justify your answers with specific information from the time line.
  • What specific change did you note between the years 1787-1791? Why is this change especially significant? (Be sure students understand that during those years, the legal basis of federalism was incorporated into the United States Constitution.)

Talk about how a time line shows change over time. Refer to the years 1798-1860. Have students use information from the time line to discuss the power struggle going on between those who wanted to have a strong federal government and those who wanted to preserve the powers of the states. Have students relate this discussion to the causes of the Civil War.

Have students refer to the following amendments:

Have students review these amendments from this perspective:

  • How has the power of the central government increased as the result of adding these amendments to the United States Constitution?
  • How did the concept of “federalism” change as a result of the Civil War and Reconstruction?

Have students review the remainder of the time line for trends in the increasing power of the central government. Ask them to provide specific examples this increasing power.

They might use the following issues as examples:

  • Civil rights
  • Interstate commerce
  • Grants-in-aid
    • Forestry
    • Highways
    • Vocational education
    • Health
    • General education
    • Highway funding

Have students summarize what they learned from the above discussion by returning to the Taking-Stock Table, correcting misconceptions in it and adding more information to the right-hand column.

Check for Understanding

  • How do time lines increase our understanding of a changing concept such as “Federalism”?

Strategy 2

Issue Analysis

Ask this question:“If there is a disaster, will people expect more or less of their government? What do you think?” Encourage students to give responses and welcome their responses, even if at this stage they may not be accurate.

Use this flow chart to analyze the consequences of a natural disaster.

Ask students to indicate possible responses that could go into the boxes. As they give answers, fill in the boxes. (Answers might include that people would expect the government to help the people find housing, to have increased police protection of private property to prevent looting, to provide loans or money to help people rebuild their homes, and so on.)

Divide the class into small groups and give each group similar flow charts. Ask them to analyze a different situation. Examples might be:

  • the United States is attacked by terrorists
  • a drought occurs and farmers do not have enough water to keep their crops alive

Use the following case study to further analyze the issue of how the central government tends to increase its power in times of crisis:

The Great Depression 
In the 1930s there was an economic depression. It was so bad that whenever the term “The Great Depression” is used, most informed people think of the 1930s. We are going to analyze this event just as we did other disasters to learn how serious this situation was and how the central government tried to deal with the crisis. Pretend you are a newspaper reporter and answer the “Five W Questions and the How Question” as you analyze the Great Depression. Use the following websites to gather your information:

Have students continue their analysis of the Great Depression by looking at pictures of the great depression and asking grandparents and great-grandparents to interpret them.

You may find the Photo Analysis Worksheet useful as you do this activity. It was developed by the National Archives and Record Service to help students analyze and draw conclusions from primary source photographs.

Check for Understanding

  • Have students use the Great Depression Flow Chart to summarize this activity. Have students write a brief analysis in their notebook of how the Great Depression is an example of how a crisis can lead to an increase in power of the central government.

Strategy 3

Cause and Effect

Review the causes of the Great Depression and the impact that it had on American society. Talk about this as a cause-effect relationship. Explain that this same cause-effect relationship can be analyzed in terms of the consequences of presidential decisions in dealing with the crisis.

Have students use the following websites to examine some of the consequences of decisions made by Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt as they tried to deal with the Great Depression:


You may also find these sources useful as you do this activity:

  • FDRs fireside chat of March 9, 1937

To help compare the two presidents, encourage students to use the graphic organizer:
Table 3: Comparing How Two Presidents Responded to the Great Depression.

Students may be directed to work individually or in teams.

In filling out the graphic organizer, students should begin with actions Hoover took and to the right list corresponding actions of Roosevelt, if any. Once that has been done, students should then list additional actions of Roosevelt.

Note: Another good website for this activity was developed in Bergen County, New Jersey, probably by and for the students of the Bergen County Technical Schools.

Have students analyze the consequences of presidential decision making on the concept of “federalism” in the United States

  • Discussion Question: Which president had the greatest impact on changing this concept?

Check for Understanding

Place the following sentence on the chalkboard:

The New Deal Changed U.S. Federalism Radically 
Divide students into groups of five students each, and inform them that they work in an office at a history museum. The museum director met with them and assigned them the task of developing a display related to the sentence on the chalkboard. The director wants each group to identify and be prepared to explain what should go into the display related to the New Deal. Be sure the discussion from within the group touches on important ideas, content-wise, to include in the display.

List these ideas quickly on the chalkboard or on an overhead transparency as they give them. Then, ask them for ideas for how they might display such ideas, listing those ideas as well.

Teacher writing on chalkboard
Updated January 19, 2023 1:44pm