This Humean notion of Americanism that acknowledges the right of a self-governing people to secede is framed in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration is primarily a document justifying secession, but it has been thoroughly corrupted by Lincoln’s reading of it and the ritualistic repetition and expansion of that reading.
The Lincoln tradition reads the Declaration as affirming a metaphysical doctrine of individual rights (all men are created equal) and takes this to be the fundamental symbol of the American regime, trumping all other symbols, including the symbol of moral excellence internal to those inherited moral communities protected by the reserved powers of the states under the Tenth Amendment. Indeed, this tradition holds that the Declaration of Independence is superior to the Constitution itself, for being mere positive law, the Constitution can always be trumped by the “higher” metaphysical law of equality.
The Constitution of the United States was founded as a federative compact between the states, marking out the authority of a central government, having enumerated powers delegated to it by sovereign states which reserved for themselves the vast domain of unenumerated powers. By an act of philosophical alchemy, the Lincoln tradition has transmuted this essentially federative document into a consolidated nationalist regime…
Lincoln’s vision of a consolidated nationalism in pursuit of an antinomic doctrine of equality had its roots in the French Revolution, which sought to unify the decentralized traditional order of France into a consolidated nationalism in pursuit of the rights of man. But Lincoln’s vision was also forward looking. By the 1830s, the forces of nationalism and industrialism were sweeping Europe, and had begun to have an impact on an industrial North all too eager to compete on the world stage with the empires of Europe. For this project, centralization and consolidation were necessary. Lincoln’s vision of consolidating the states into a nationalist regime was of a piece with that of Garibaldi in Italy, Bismarck in Germany, Lenin in Russia, and the general consolidating, industrializing, and imperializing forces on the move in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.