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Federalism is the mixed or compound mode of government, combining a general government (the central or 'federal' government) with regional governments (provincial, state, Land, cantonal, territorial or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system. Its distinctive feature, exemplified in the founding example of modern federalism of the United States of America under the Constitution of 1787, is a relationship of parity between the two levels of government established. It can thus be defined as a form of government in which there is a division of powers between two levels of government of equal status.

Federalism is distinguished from confederalism, in which the general level of government is subordinate to the regional level, and from devolution within a unitary state, in which the regional level of government is subordinate to the general level. It represents the central form in the pathway of regional integration or separation, bounded on the less integrated side by confederalism and on the more integrated side by devolution within a unitary state.

Leading examples of the federation or federal state include Canada, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and India. Some also today characterize the European Union as the pioneering example of federalism in a multi-state setting, in a concept termed the federal union of states.

The terms 'federalism' and 'confederalism' both have a root in the Latin word foedus, meaning "treaty, pact or ." Their common meaning until the late eighteenth century was a simple league or inter-governmental relationship among sovereign states based upon a treaty. They were therefore initially synonyms. It was in this sense that James Madison in Federalist 39 had referred to the new United States as 'neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both' (i.e. neither a single large unitary state nor a league/confederation among several small states, but a hybrid of the two). In the course of the nineteenth century the meaning of federalism would come to shift, strengthening to refer uniquely to the novel compound political form, while the meaning of confederalism would remain at a league of states. Thus, this article relates to the modern usage of the word 'federalism'.


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