Laboratories of Democracy

The State of the States

In its early years, the U.S. wasn’t so much “United” as “States.” Over time, the federal government has become more powerful, but states have continued to assert their independence on everything from gun control to medical marijuana. In this hour, we ask: If we’re all Americans, why do states still matter? Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell describes how his state has left the feds in the dust when it comes to climate change policy. Historian Eric Foner discusses the successes and failures of the 14th Amendment, created to protect us from the states. And a long-haul trucker explains why she’d like to do away with states altogether.

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Fourteenth Amendment

Historian Eric Foner discusses the origins and changing meanings of the Fourteenth Amendment. He explains how a law intended to protect individual rights in the wake of the Civil War ended up emboldening corporate power in the Gilded Age and beyond.


How Did West Virginia Get its Name?

Some say it’s the best Virginia, but West Virginia might once have been known as Westsylvania, or as the more grandiloquent Vandalia.  So what happened?  Find out here, with West Virginia native Catherine Moore.

Also explore Franklin, other American states-that-could-have-been, and fictional American states.


Federalism Challenge

Throughout American history, the relationship between the federal government and the states has taken various forms, leading historians to coin creative (and culinary) metaphors to describe the different distributions of power. Think you can do better than the examples below? Cook up your own metaphorical descriptor and post it below. (Click here for a  Federalism refresher.)

Some of BackStory‘s favorite metaphors (we’re not making these up…):

  • Marble Cake Federalism
  • Layer Cake Federalism
  • Birthday Cake Federalism
  • Fruit Cake Federalism
  • Fry-Bread Federalism
  • Picket Fence Federalism (not as delicious)

How would you describe the relationship between the federal government and the states? Add your suggestion below, and we’ll read our favorite new political metaphors on our next show!

Further Reading

All Centuries
  • One way of thinking about the Constitution: a “peace pact” among the states
  • Google preview of States’ Rights and American Federalism: A Documentary History
  • Federalism as a philosophy
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century & Beyond
  • Recent article about the role of states in the Obama Administration
  • Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ed Rendell in a recent debate about states and infrastructure at UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs
  • On Point: States rights in the health care debate and beyond