Daniel J. Elazar founded the Center for the Study of Federalism (CSF) at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA in 1967.

The Center was heir to the Workshop on American Federalism at the University of Chicago. The workshop had been directed by Elazar’s mentor, Morton Grodzins, who had died three years earlier. After Elazar’s passing in 1999, the Center moved to the Robert B. and Helen S. Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government at Lafayette College under the leadership of John Kincaid. The Center’s website was established in 2017 to be an ongoing online presence and public resource.

The study of federalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s had become a growth industry, largely in response to the heightened velocity of intergovernmental relations – first under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” and “Creative Federalism” umbrellas and then under President Richard M. Nixon’s version of “New Federalism.” Legal scholars continued to study the judicial dimension of federalism, but a new generation of political scientists focused on the exploding administrative dimension of intergovernmental relations created by a plethora of new federal laws, programs, grants, and regulations affecting state and local governments. Funding for federal grants to state and local governments increased by 243 percent from 1960 to 1970 and by another 280 percent from 1970 to 1980. The number of federal grant programs to state and local governments also jumped during the 1960s from 132 in 1960 to 385 by 1968 and 492 by 1978. Grants became more specialized, more regulated, and more wide-ranging in their subject matters.

From its inception, the Center’s hallmark approach to these and later developments has remained focused on the political dimension of federalism as a principle and process. The defining characteristics of this approach are reflected in the Center’s foundational work, Daniel Elazar’s American Federalism: A View From the States (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966). They are also reflected in the Center’s projects and activities detailed elsewhere on this website. The remainder of this analytical history teases those characteristics out of the Center’s long list of projects.

  • Ideas matter. In all of its activities, the Center has remained committed to the study of federalism as a guiding principle not only of intergovernmental relations but also more widely of political behavior, public policy design, constitutional and institutional design, and cultural norms of political life in federal systems. One of the Center’s main contributions over the decades has been to the intellectual history of federalism, that is, to the history of the idea of federalism and its allied principles, and also to the role of ideas like federalism in American and world history. The Center’s Covenant Project, its Political Culture Project, and its work on the political theory of federalism, constitutionalism, and republicanism are examples of this intellectual emphasis. The multi-disciplinary scope of this work, moreover, is reflected, for example, in the fact that the Society of Christian Ethics published a special symposium on the Works of Daniel Elazar in its Annual in 2000. (See tabs on Activities and Publications elsewhere on this website.)
  • Multiple perspectives and venues. Federalism by definition informs systems of relationships among diverse actors operating in multiple arenas. As a principle, federalism looks to nonhierarchical systems of cooperative relations among co-equal actors. Reality has a way of bending this principle, but it is axiomatic that federalism research as social systems research requires modes of inquiry that investigate developments from multiple perspectives and in multiple arenas. Elazar’s 1966 book, subtitled “A View from the States” is a case in point. At the time, federalism research was focused on federal government policies rather than on the roles and responses of the states in the American federal system. The Center early on established an ongoing Project on State Politics/State Constitutions. The Center also has maintained a commitment since its founding to the study of local civil communities as intergovernmental systems in their own right, advocates for federal and state policies, and adapters of those policies. Among the Center’s first research projects was Cities of the Prairie studying ten medium-sized cities of the prairie as players in the American federal system over three half-generation periods from 1946 to 1992. Other civil community projects can be found under the Activities tab elsewhere on this website.
  • The Comparative Method. The Center has relied extensively on the comparative method in ways broadly laid out by John Stuart Mill in his seminal work of the mid-nineteenth century. First, and most obviously, the Center has used the comparative method to identify, classify, and analyze federal systems around the world and over time based on their similarities and differences. The Center has also compared local and constituent state governments both within and between federal systems. Beginning in 1972, the Center established the Comparative Federalism Project to serve as an umbrella for these different levels of research. (See Comparative Federalism tab under Activities elsewhere on this website.) The Center also has employed the comparative method to study both the application of federal principles to real-world cases and the rethinking of those principles based on comparative case-study research, as exemplified most recently in the Center’s role in the Global Dialogue on Federalism.

The Center has pursued all these directions together and simultaneously since the first five years of its founding. The adage, “pursue one thing well,” characterized the Center’s commitment to the idea of federalism, but its pursuit of the applications of the federal idea has been wide-ranging. As a result, there has been a certain synergy to the Center’s work across project areas. The study of American federalism benefitted from the study of states and localities, and those benefitted from the close observation of political culture and public policy. The Center’s first study of comparative federalism focused on cities in federal systems, and that inquiry was a spin-off of the U.S.-based, yet comparative, Cities of the Prairie project. The Center has evolved over the decades in response to changing times and the obligations and opportunities they presented. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Center monitored the warning signs of federal coercion and centralization in Johnson’s Great Society and Nixon’s New Federalism. In the mid- and late 1970s, the Center used the opportunity of the American bicentenary to increase public understanding of America as a federal democracy and stimulate debate over its continuing relevance. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, Center staff were appointed to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution provided a teaching moment on federalism for social studies teachers and civic educators. Since the early 1990s, the Center has monitored the rise of coercive federalism in the United States and become an international source of information and advice on federalism for emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, Russia, and elsewhere. During the early 2000s, the Center has played a leading role in the Global Dialogue on Federalism generously funded by the Forum of Federations.

There is a purposeful mirror quality between what the Center investigates and how it has conducted and shared its inquiries. Federal and confederal partnerships are a core philosophical and strategic commitment of the Center. At the individual level, the Center has formed partnerships with CSF Fellows who work with staff to design the Center’s priorities and programs and Associates who participate actively in Center projects. At the organizational level, the Center has worked collaboratively with a variety of academic and governmental institutes and helped start new ones. At the associational level, the Center has played a long-standing role in bringing together and coordinating scholars, practitioners, and organizations as a founder of the membership-based Conference for Federal Studies, the Section on Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations of the American Political Science Association (APSA), and the International Association of Centers of Federal Studies (IACFS). The Center also played a role in the establishment of RC28: Comparative Federalism and Multilevel Governance of the International Political Science Association. For descriptions of these partnerships see the Partnerships tab elsewhere on this website.

The Center also has maintained a commitment to fostering the teaching of federalism and federal ideas in secondary education. The Center has sought to address the paucity of secondary-school federalism pedagogy through the provision of teacher institutes, professional development materials, and consultations both independently and in cooperation with other educational organizations.

The Center’s mode of operation is based on a partnership model of research and scholarship. This model, known as the project-team-product approach, is commonplace today but it was still in its infancy in academic circles in the 1960s. As the term suggests, the Center designed its research and education around specific, concrete topics that lent themselves to identifiable projects with a beginning, middle, and end. The topics might be philosophical (e.g., the covenant idea), historical (e.g., the Articles of Confederation), policy-centered (e.g., housing and community development policy), or institutional (e.g., state legislatures). The Center brings together some of the leading scholars in the field, initially in a conference or seminar format around a structured agenda to explore the topic from strategic perspectives and multiple disciplines. The project then proceeds in any one of several directions from wrap up to drilling down or to expansion.

Product development, publication, and dissemination are critical considerations at each stage. Within its first five years, the Center had founded its flagship publication, Publius: The Journal of Federalism, as an outlet for its conference papers and project research in special issues of the journal, the research of its associates, and unsolicited manuscripts in open issues. In its early years, the Center also started a quarterly newsletter, CFS Notebook, that provided a vehicle for sharing news and notes on Center activities and the work of the members of the Conferences for Federal Studies. The Notebook later expanded to report news of two professional associations founded by the Center – the Section on Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations of the American Political Science Association (APSA) and the International Association of Centers for Federal Studies (IACFS). The Section, created in 1983, is a home for individual scholars and practitioners of federalism and intergovernmental relations, primarily but not exclusively composed of American scholars researching the American federal system. The IACFS, founded in 1977, is an international association composed primarily of academic centers from around the world with a commitment to the study of federalism, regionalism, and intergovernmental relations.

Throughout its history, the Center has held fast to the idea of federalism as a principle as well as a process that transcends intergovernmental relations and seeks ultimately to move the world’s diverse polities toward republicanism, constitutional democracy, justice, and peace.