Federalism as an 18th century American "innovation" . . .
I've not been able to track down the specific exhortation, but Tom Paine is said to have urged the British colonists in America to "make laws for themselves."
Once Americans began doing this, claims McDougall:
[T]hey produced three astounding innovations in the ways people related to each other, their government, and the human race. The first was religious liberty, the second federalism, third free immigration. (Freedom Just Around the Corner, 312)
The word "astounding" is rather bold. I presume that McDougall wants to jolt us into recognizing that Americans were sailing into uncharted territory. The old, 'tried and true' political cartography was abandoned, and charting a safe passage into this new political future were no maps, just speculations.
Thus, Americans had to innovate. Two of these innovations -- religious liberty and free immigration -- are clear enough for me to grasp without having to grapple. But federalism is not so immediately clear, so perhaps we need to get a firmer grip. Here's what McDougall tells us:
Federalism based on overlapping sovereignties was a stunning innovation that defied Old World logic and appeared cumbersome, if not self-destructive. It remains a novel and fragile experiment even today. But the Federalists meant somehow to reconcile both order and freedom and empire and liberty in a way that Rome and Great Britain had not. They attempted it not only because they were eager to gobble up North America, but because they realized an America "too free" to defend itself in an imperialist world would soon cease to be free at all. (312)
In the background to McDougall's remark about the "Old World logic" of the 18th century lie the two European traditions of feudalism and monarchy. From historical experience, Europeans knew the centrifugal tendencies of the former and the centripetal tendencies of the latter and saw the two as driven by conflicting, irreconcilable forces that could not stably coexist within the same political system.
Federalism proposed to bring them together in a sytem modeled upon the Copernican cosmos:
[T]he U.S. Constitution was drafted and ratified. It made the nation an elegant solar system in which the federal government attracted and glowed life into the states without consuming them in its central fire. The states in turn gave the sun glory precisely because they were free to spin in their own orbits. Checks and balances kept the spheres in proportion, their celestial music in harmony. (320)
Wikipedia's entry on "Federalism" puts this more succinctly:
Federalism is a system of government in which power is constitutionally divided between a central authority and constituent political units (like states or provinces). The two levels of government are interdependent, and share sovereignty.
Also worth looking at is Wikipedia's entry on U.S. Federalism, which distinguishes among three different federalist political movements in American history:
During the 1780s, Federalism was a movement whose governing philosophy was that national government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak. Its adherents pushed for a convention to revise the Articles, and, when this convention proposed the Constitution of the United States, they pushed for its ratification. Their opponents were called the "Anti-Federalists".
. . .
From about 1790 to 1820, Federalism referred to the policies of the Federalist Party. Its opponents were called "Republicans".
. . .
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Federalism refers to the policy of devolving power from the federal government to the states. It is often identified with Conservatism, and indeed there is a large overlap between the adherents of the two movements.
The Wikipedia entry then observes:
The third movement appears to be almost diametrically opposed to the first two in that the third seeks a weaker national government while the first two movements sought a stronger national government.
The opposition is perhaps only a matter of perspective. Federalism proposes a balance between center and periphery. Thus, pushing for a more powerful central authority or pressing for strengthened peripheral powers can both be consistent with federalist political philosophy.
Consistency depends not upon appealing to the national center or the outer provinces but upon maintaining the federal system's balance.