A group made up of some of the biggest names in contemporary conservatism got together a few days ago and crafted what they are calling the “Mount Vernon Statement,” a manifesto of sorts meant to give direction to today’s conservative movement. Put succinctly, it fails to fill the bill.
Taken as a whole this statement is fine as a short history lesson. It explains pretty clearly what the founders had wrought when their basic work was done with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. But as a statement of principles that might guide today’s discussion I do not think the letter works.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that this effort is harmful. In fact, I think every young person should read it for its explication of our historically conservative American principles. The problem is that this thing doesn’t seem to speak directly to what we are facing today like a statement that perhaps aims to become boilerplate should.
Some of those involved with the statement said that the 1960 “Sharon Statement” served as their inspiration. The Sharon Statement, intended to give some ideological umph to Goldwater conservatives, is an effort that works much better as a rallying cry to action. Sadly, the Mount Vernon Statement falls a little flat in this respect.
Historically I have two minor qualms about the newest effort. First of all its name doesn’t resonate. Yes, George Washington was the indispensable man of our early republic. Without him the warring factions facing off in political battle during our early republic just might have strangled this baby in its crib. But, as steadying a force as he was, Washington was not really the ideological or intellectual father of our nation. He was the father that kept the kids from beating each other up, the father we looked up to as a model of comportment, the man we looked to as the solid rock of the family, certainly, but he wasn’t the idea man. For that we looked to men like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams among many others.
So, naming this letter after George Washington’s estate seems a bit odd. Better that these folks should have met in Independence Hall, Philadelphia and called this the Philadelphia Statement, the Independence Statement, or some such thing. The words “Mount Vernon” are obviously meant to lend historical heft to the document but they just don’t succeed as a meaningful ideological association. In fact, it’s sort of hollow. Are we naming our bedrock ideological principles for the man that didn’t craft them? That seems a bit odd to me.
Secondly, I find fault with this paragraph (my bold):
The conservatism of the Declaration asserts self-evident truths based on the laws of nature and nature’s God. It defends life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It traces authority to the consent of the governed. It recognizes man’s self-interest but also his capacity for virtue.
The word “recognizes” is not the correct word to use for what the founders thought about the word “virtue.” They didn’t merely “recognize” virtue existed. They built their entire political edifice on the insistence that our political leaders practice virtue and that they base their every move on the need to be seen as civically virtuous. This is an idea about which few of our political leaders today have the slightest clue, not to mention that the public is generally ignorant of what the founders meant when they discussed public virtue. Sadly, this letter doesn’t help us regain a proper perspective on the founder’s idea of public virtue.
The Mount Vernon Statement missed an opportunity to better explain what virtue in government could mean as a rallying cry for today’s conservative movement.
The Mount Vernon Statement is a fine little history lesson but compared to the Sharon Statement, it just doesn’t seem to as immediately take on the issues that we face. Where is the discussion of the destruction of our educational system, where is the warning against our worst foreign threat, where is the assertion that our system of jurisprudence has been undermined? All these things are broadly implied by the Mount Vernon Statement, granted, but one wishes that today’s problems were more directly addressed.
While we don’t want a statement that names names or attacks specific policies directly -- that would detract from the essential universality of such a statement of principles -- still to my mind the Mount Vernon Statement is a bit too broad. I feel that we need something a tad more direct. The Sharon Statement was perfect for its mixture of what were then current issues and timeless conservatives principles.
Should you have signed onto the Mount Vernon Statement, or should you feel that you’d like to do so, I can find no harsh words for you. As I said, there is no great harm done by this effort. Unfortunately, there is also correspondingly little succor that this effort can lend to our cause. It seems like a nice history lesson but as a manifesto to rally around it is more like a staid assertion than a battle cry. It is eminently forgettable.
Yes, it’s easy to criticize. Surely it will occur to the minds of many readers of my criticism here that I should offer solutions along with my criticisms. So I offer the following basic idea of what I’d consider a better “statement” than what resulted from the efforts at Mount Vernon, Virginia. I’ll call it the “Huston Statement” for lack of a better title and since, well, I’m the one writing the thing.
Remembering that I am one man, not a committee of 80 some high-powered conservative operatives, here are the ideas I thought of while reading the Mount Vernon Statement, humbly offered as a basis upon which to further the discussion:
The Huston Statement
Since our political climate has long since drifted from the first principles of our founding and since we now face a crisis threatening to tear down our American moral center we commit ourselves to re-establishing our American character.
We believe that our Constitution and the principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence form the best guide by which to nurture our American character and provides a firm bedrock upon which to build a government.
We as Americans believe:
That as individuals we have the right of self-determination, to be free of overweening involvement in our lives by government at all levels from local, to state, to federal.
That as free men we must strongly assert that we are responsible for ourselves, our family, and our property and that others owe us nothing but to observe our rights as we observe theirs.
That our liberties depend on our civic virtue and that it is up to each of us to become informed citizens.
With these God-given liberties in mind, that our representatives must strive to keep government out of the lives of the people to the greatest extent practicable and that they should honor the principles of limited government as handed down to us from our founders.
And we assert that adherence to these principles will act as a beacon of freedom to the world, that we should actively promote them abroad giving succor to all those that would follow in our footsteps, and that we should not lend legitimacy to foreign bodies or nations that retreat from them.
We affirm that:
Private property is sacrosanct
The market-based economy free of government meddling must be preserved
Employees must be free of compulsory associations
Governments must be accountable to the voters not to judges and unions
Communities have the right to draft standards without federal approval
Education is a local responsibility solely under local and state control
It is freedom of religion, not freedom from religion
And that our Second Amendment rights are God-given and cannot be infringed
Additionally, we as Americans also reaffirm that legislation is the rightful duty of our constituted bodies of representatives and not the venue of capricious judges. Ruling from the bench is no better than the ill-considered tyrannies from the throne from which we so long ago rebelled.
Finally, let us understand these principles to be an affirmation of our American character one that has made our nation the richest and strongest nation in human history. Any force, whether domestic or foreign, that wishes to materially alter this character is an enemy to our nation and one that should not be treated lightly but faced squarely and with resolution.
Well, this is how I see a statement of principles that are geared to today’s issues but are still the sort that attest to our timeless conservative ideals.
I hope this can serve to continue the discussion that the Mount Vernon Statement started.