Unitary, Federal, or Confederal

Unitary, Federal, or Confederal

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay comparing and contrasting three forms of government. Written for HIS 303: The American Constitution.


Unitary, Federal, or Confederal



It is first necessary to understand what unitary, federal, and confederal governments are, before discussing why a political system should adopt one or another of these.

A unitary government is one that "is governed constitutionally as one single unit, with one constitutionally created legislature" (Unitary State, n.d., para. 1). In this form of government, all power originates at the top, and any power that is held by local governments comes from the national government.  This is the type of government that the American Colonists had left behind in Great Britain, and that they did not wish to have for the United States.

In a federal government system, "[p]ower is shared by a powerful central government and states or provinces that are given considerable self-rule, usually through their own legislatures" (Thomson, n.d., para. 2).  In this form of government, powers "derive ... from the people" (O'Connor and Sabado, 2008, section 8.2, para. 2).  This is the form of government that currently exists in the United States, and that was established by the U.S. Constitution.

A confederal, or confederate, government is a "weak or loose organization of states [that] agrees to follow a ... weak central government" (Thomson, n.d., para. 5).  As the Framers discovered under the Articles of Confederation, the central government, which gets all of its power from the states, may have very little power at all.

The Framers of government for the United States chose a federal government after freeing the United States from a unitary government, and after a failed experiment in confederal government.  They did this so that the central government would have the power to govern and to defend the nation, and to raise the funds needed to operate the government and to provide for defense.  At the same time, the states retained most of the power to govern within their borders, and the people retained their personal liberties.  It is my opinion that the Framers made a wise, well-informed choice, as evidenced by the fact that we continue to live under the federal system that they devised.  As E. Wood (n.d.) states:

The framers at the Constitutional Convention tried to balance the perceived tyranny of the unitary system with the chaos created by the confederal system by outlining a hybrid federal system in the Constitution.  Federalism, then, became a major building block for preserving freedoms while still maintaining order in the new nation.  (para. 4)

If the United States was to hold another Constitutional Convention, I believe we would still retain the federal form of government in the end.  There are those who would argue in favor of a unitary government, or of a socialist government, because some would like the government to be able to make quick, unilateral decisions, and because others would like the government to provide for every material need of the people, but, in the end, cooler heads would remind such a Convention of the excesses and abuses the United States has fought against in the past century, and reason would prevail.  The federal government has enough power to defend and protect its people while allowing its people to make their own choices and to craft their own successes.



O'Connor, K. and Sabato, L.J.  (2008).  American government: Continuity and change,    [Electronic version].  New York: Pearson-Longman.

Thomson, G.  (n.d.).  Federal, Confederate and Unitary Governments.  Retrieved February       15, 2010, from           http://www.nusd.k12.az.us/nhs/gthomson.class/assignments/uni.fed.confed/uni.fed.          confed.html

Unitary State.  (n.d.).  Retrieved February 15, 2010, from http://www.spiritus-         temporis.com/unitary-state/

Wood, E.  (n.d.).  Chapter Two: Federalism.  Retrieved February 15, 2010, from           http://phs.prs.k12.nj.us/ewood/amergov/USGov5th/chaptertwo.

© 2017 Debbie Barry

Author's Note

Debbie Barry
Initial reactions and constructive criticism welcome.

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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, American government, government, Unitary, Federal, Confederal, compare and contrast

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..