Lesson 6: “Analysis of Federalist Papers/Federalism vs. States’ Rights” (Grades 11-12)

Background: Due to the many problems that arose from attempting to govern effectively under the Articles of Confederation it became necessary for our Founders to start over and draft a new document that would centralize power in a federal government; however, opposition to such an idea was fierce from advocates of states’ rights.  In an attempt to win over voters in New York State throughout 1787 and 1788, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison would publish what would become known as The Federalist Papers in several New York newspapers under the pen name “Publius.”  The papers became famous and remain so to this day as a means of gaining insight into the minds of the Framers as they made their case for federalism.

On the flip side, those opposed to federalism—not surprisingly called anti-federalists—felt that too much power had been taken out of the hands of the states and that they were headed down the path back to tyranny.  Those beliefs continued to grow throughout the waning years of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, surfacing most obviously during Jackson’s presidency and again as a contributor to the Civil War.  During the Nullification Crisis of the 1830’s, John C. Calhoun took the lead in advocating for states’ rights and his views encapsulate the issues of that movement perfectly then and still today.

This lesson seeks to allow students the chance to analyze difficult primary source materials looking for insights into the authors’ views and opinions, as well as giving them a thorough working understanding of the many issues surrounding both federalism and anti-federalism.  They can also begin to draw conclusions about their own beliefs about the role of the federal government in the lives of citizens, as well as make connections to today’s political parties and their ideas on the subject.

Objective: Students will read and analyze various sources to be able to understand and speak knowledgably about the following:

  • The Federalist Papers
  • Federalism
  • States’ rights
  • James Madison
  • Nullification
  • John C. Calhoun
  • Republic/republicanism
  • Democracy



  • Part One: Distribute or have students access Federalist 10 the night before for homework with the following guiding questions to answer.
  • Part Two: The next day in class, put your students into small groups of 3 or 4 and have them discuss their answers.  Were they convinced by Madison’s arguments, etc.?  Then have each group report back on one of the answers or share their overall sentiments.
  • Part Three: Have a class discussion around the issue of whether they see parallels in today’s political climate and Madison’s fears about factions.  Ask them to be as specific as possible and to explain/support their answer.  If you know it will be difficult for them to draw such parallels, provide them with additional materials to look through on things such as the Tea Party, etc. to help them.  Or you could show some news clips in class to them if that is possible.
  • Part Four: Have the students write a one-page reflection on what they read and discussed, being sure to not just regurgitate the information, but to think about how the issues discussed by Madison are still pertinent in today’s society, what that says about our system and if it works or not, and what it says about us as Americans.


  • Give relevant background on the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832, Andrew Jackson, and John C. Calhoun.
  • Distribute excerpts from Calhoun’s statement on nullification.
  • Come up with a definition of nullification as a class and explain why Calhoun is calling for such an act.  Why does he believe the tariffs are unconstitutional?  What do his feelings tell us about his views on the role of the federal government?
  • Split students into two random groups and assign one group to defend federalism and the other to defend states’ rights.  They should be prepared to address the major question of: what is the proper size and role of government in citizens’ lives?  You could keep it open-ended and have them decide which points and arguments they want to make, or you could choose several issues—such as taxes, military/defense, social welfare—that they should be focusing on and they could assign themselves roles based on those.  It will depend on the age and ability of your students.  However you want to structure it, homework tonight for your students should be to prepare/research for the debate.


  • Class debate on federalism vs. states’ rights.  Although debates need to be structured, it is also important to allow for a certain amount of free discourse to flow, depending on age, sophistication, appropriateness, etc.  There should be opening and closing statements for each group, with others, perhaps in pairs, presenting arguments for specific issues regarding each group’s overall position, as well as time for questions and rebuttals.
  • As a wrap up, for homework, each student should write a reflection paper on the debate and answer the question regarding the appropriate size and role for government based on their own views, opinions, etc.  1-2 pages double-spaced should be sufficient, and students should obviously be allowed and encouraged to write in the first person and bring in their own experiences to support their arguments.

DCPS Social Studies Standards covered:

  • 8.3.4, 8.3.5, 8.3.6, 8.4.1, 8.4.3, 8.9.2, 8.10.5, 8.11.2, 8.11.3
  • 11.1.6, 11.1.7
  • 12.1.4, 12.1.5, 12.1.6, 12.2, 12.3, 12.5.1, 12.5.3, 12.8.5

U.S. History Content Standards covered:

  • Era 3, Standard 3
  • Era 4, Standard 3
  • Era 5, Standard 1
  • Era 10, Standard 1

Virginia History and Social Studies Content Standards covered:

  • USI.1, USI.7, USI.8, USI.9, USII.1, CE.1, CE.2

Maryland State Social Studies Curriculum Standards covered:

  • Standard 1, Expectation 1, Topic A, Indicator 1, Objectives a-j
  • Standard 1, Expectation 1, Topic A, Indicator 2

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