On the “Mount Vernon Statement”

The conservative “old guard” has released a political manifesto called the “Mount Vernon Statement,” which to me is a textbook example of what happens when people ignorant of history attempt to interpret a historical document. Or, in this case, it’s possibly not so much that they are ignorant of history but that they are incapable of thinking outside their ideology box.

This ideological myopia creates howlers such as the claim the Founding Fathers were vitally concerned with “economic reforms grounded in market solutions.” I don’t think so. The Founders lived in the dawn of the age of industrial capitalism, but I’ve never noticed that they were much influenced by industrial-capitalist thought. Most of them were old-money Agrarian Age aristocrats, remember.

Indeed, if you think about it, the whole idea of naming a [free-market] manifesto after Mount Vernon — a bleeping slave plantation when George Washington lived there — reveals their aversion to actual history as opposed to symbolism and allegory (see the previous Mahablog post).

Another oddity noted by Jack Balkin — the word equality does not appear anywhere in the Mount Vernon statement. “It is hard to speak of fidelity to the Declaration and to the Constitution without once mentioning equality as a central value behind the Declaration and the Constitution,” he says, with profound understatement. “The Declaration’s most famous passage announces the self-evident truth is that all men are created equal.” Today’s Mount Vernon crew do bring up the Declaration, but only so they could work in a mention of God, who is inconveniently missing from the Constitution itself (courtesy of the “godless liberals” who wrote it).

Another anachronism — the Mount Vernon crew claims the Constitution “supports America’s national interest in advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world and prudently considers what we can and should do to that end.” Um, where is the “opposing tyranny in the world” clause?

The first statement in the document that set off alarm bells for me came in the first paragraph —

We recommit ourselves to the ideas of the American Founding. Through the Constitution, the Founders created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law. They sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government.

The Constitution was indeed created to maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government. However, today’s movement conservatism does not believe in “republican self-government.” In the article by Michael Lind I discussed in the previous post, Lind wrote,

Likewise, the idea of popular sovereignty, though it dates back to John Locke in the 17th century, need not inspire reactionary reverence for existing institutions, much less a desire to restore an alleged golden age. On the contrary, the sovereign people have the right to remake their political and social order every generation or two, in order to achieve their perennial goals in changing conditions.

This was the view of Abraham Lincoln, who said in his Second Annual Message to Congress: “As our case is new, we must think anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.” And it was the view of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 in his Commonwealth Club Address: “Faith in America, faith in our tradition of personal responsibility, faith in our institutions, faith in ourselves demand that we recognize the new terms of the old social contract.”

At the high level of public philosophy, the debate between the tea party right and progressives boils down to this: Do we think that fidelity to our predecessors means mindlessly doing what they did in their own time, even though times have changed? Or do we think that we should act as they would act, if they lived in the 21st century and had learned from everything that has happened in America and the world in the past 200 years?

To put it another way: The American Revolution was a beginning, not an end. The real equivalents today of the American revolutionaries are those who view the republic, not as an 18th-century utopia to be restored with archaeological exactitude, but as a work in progress to which every generation of Americans can contribute.

The conservative idea of “republican self-government” makes the Constitution into a straightjacket, taking away the ability of We, the People to use government to address our concerns, as opposed to the concerns of 1787. Government is an active thing. Government in any form is assessing changing conditions and making decisions based on current needs and available resources.

Since Reagan, however, conservatives have slapped the hands of anyone who actually wants to practice “republican self-government.” Government is supposed to be drowned in the bathtub and replaced by corporate oligarchy.

Come to think of it, maybe they hadn’t forgotten Mount Vernon was a slave plantation.

Anyway, it should be noted that the tea partiers are way underwhelmed. “Old school movement conservative leaders have ceased to be relevant in any meaningful way,” one wrote. The tea partiers are writing their own manifesto, called the “Contract From America.” And yes, that old school movement conservative and old whore Newt Gingrich saw this movement and managed to position himself in front of it. (This is all linked on the tea partier site, which is set up so that you can’t link to individual items on it. Not user-friendly.)

The tea partiers want specifics, apparently, and not mushy bromides, which suggests they haven’t entirely given up on “republican self-government” even if the solutions they favor are grotesquely wrong-headed. Credit where credit is due.

22 thoughts on “On the “Mount Vernon Statement”

  1. I read that Mount Vernon Statement four times, and still have no idea what they’re trying to say here. Do they want a rigid 1700’s reading of the Constitution? Or something else? So far as I could tell it was all airy fluff and no substance. Who were they writing this for? And what did they hope to accomplish?

    I’m at a loss here.

  2. It really reads like a 6th-grader’s B-minus report on the Declaration and the Constitution.

    The actual Declaration said:

    He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

    He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

    He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

    He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

    He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

    He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

    He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

    He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

    On and on. There isn’t even a weak, wingnutty attempt at anything similar in the Mount Vernon thingy. I think I know why.

    By the way, the Declaration also says

    Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

    but I’m sure Ed Meese et alnever read that far.

  3. Breaking: Texas dipshit sets his own house on fire, then flies a small plane into an IRS building in Austin.

    My money’s on the terrorist being an anti-gummint white guy.

  4. “My money’s on the terrorist being an anti-gummint white guy”

    Come on now, you know it can’t be terrorism unless the pilot is a raghead!

  5. As an American Indian, I sort of fear any one who wants to go back to the revolution days because to do what they did, they tried to destroy the native peoples of this land. Will I be sent to an even smaller reservation?

    • Will I be sent to an even smaller reservation?

      Probably, and as Will Rogers said, it’ll be a place where the grass don’t grow and the water don’t flow.

  6. Oh good grief. The verbatim rant of the Austin, Texas “terrist”:


    So you let corporations exploit you all your working life; then decide to end it all in your small plane while trying to take out as many other people as you can. I swear, I have had it up to here with smug, self-pitying white dudes who blame everyone else for their troubles. And yes, Mount Vernon guys, lookin’ at you.

  7. From I read in this “statement”, I can’t get through much (how Muldoon read it four times is beyond me), it is just the same old tired GOP talking points used before an election to rile up the populist fever, after which they will give everything back to corporate America as per usual. Clever idea calling it the Mount Vernon statement, then when us Lilly livered liberals put it down they can say see, they hate our founding fathers, perfect!

  8. uncledad,
    And don’t forget, the “Eli Lilly” Phara-blue-dog Democrats will join in these poeple and the Republicans in the “they hate our founding fathers chorus, too.”

  9. Reading the Mount Vernon Manifesto, I’m just curious as to what happened to the conservative complaint that ‘English should be our first language?”
    Part of the country now speaks “GIBBERISH!”
    The first death knell to English as we knew it, was George W. Bush.
    The 2nd is Sarah, “The Goddess!”
    I think I know the real reason McCain and the Republicans chose her. After the way Bush butchered the English language, they had to find someone to run who would make him sound well-spoken in retrospect.
    And boy, were they ever successful. Sarah makes W. sound like William F. Buckley!!!
    We’d better watch out, or out of the Peebag movement (so named for all those seniors), we may have that great Dick Tracy nemesis running for the Republican Party in 2012 – “Mumbles!” And no kid under the age of 50 will understand who that candidate is.

  10. Uncledad, you are so right. Why I bothered to read the damn thing four times is beyond me. Except…you know, there’s always that itch to try to make sense of nonsensical things. Kinda like that Alice In Wonderland feeling so many of us experienced in the build-up to the Iraq war. It made no sense…everything we read and learned told us the Bush justification for unprovoked attack made no sense. And yet, many of us wondered (myself included), what am I missing that seems so clear to all those famous folk in high places?

    And I guess that’s why I read that damned Mt. Vernon statement four times. I couldn’t believe the people who signed their names to it could have been that stupid. Or that transparent.

  11. When you get past the platitudes of this kind of document – and into conservative specifics as in the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and the GOP denunciation of Obama’s ‘redistribution of wealth’, most would agree that the conservative wealthy and well-off resent the taxes they pay and fear higher taxes to stabilize Social Security and Medicare and new revenues to provide Universal Health Care. IMO, they live in abject terror that the problem of the deficit will be solved with higher taxes on the upper, upper crust.

    I have to wonder if there is anyone in the Democratic Party with more than 3 adjoining brain cells working – that Democrats allow conservatives GOP or TPP to claim the mantle of the founding fathers without a word of dissent. Any honest student of the process and arguments of the creation of this country KNOWS there was not a single mindset – that the opinions of the founders were varied, diverse and controversial. Anyone on the left or right who asserts that HIS opinion is that of the ‘founding fathers’ is a bloomin’ liar, because the founders could barely agree that the sun rose in the east and set in the west – every clause of the Constitution was was the result of argument and compromise.

    However the Declaration of Independence is nearly the product of one mind – that of Thomas Jefferson. So read the words of THE founding father and see if it gives a clue about where the burden of providing for the general welfare OUGHT to be from this letter on the subject of tarrifs.

    “Our revenues liberated by the discharge of the
    public debt, and its surplus applied to canals,
    roads, schools, &c., the farmer will see his
    government supported, his children educated,
    and the face of his country made a paradise
    by the contributions of the rich alone, without
    his being called on to spend a cent from his
    earnings. * —”
    To General Kosciusko. Washington ed. v, 586.

    Why in the blepin’ hell isn’t somebody of stature – President Obama – President Clinton calling them out for manifestos on synthesized parchment or dressing in costumes and playing ‘patriot’ as if they are the sole keepers of truth? The opinions of the founders were in conflict as much then as they are now. The difference is that conservatives were willing to play nice with liberals and when push came to shove, they compromised FOR the benefit of all.

  12. Come on now, you know it can’t be terrorism unless the pilot is a raghead!

    He took out an IRS facility. Clearly, he’s a small-government, anti-tax patriot.

    (Note to Righties: That was sarchasm.)

  13. For this post Uncledad expressed my views perfectly. I spent much of today listening to Thomas Frank and one of the things he stresses is the fact that the Democratic party doesn’t talk to these angry poor white people anymore. So Doug – you are correct – but the Democrats are too worried about upsetting the big businesses and Wall Street to bother correcting the weirdos.

  14. Just exactly what is the difference between their “true religious liberty” and plain old garden variety religious liberty?

    This is the sort of boilerplate that doesn’t survive much careful consideration of what it says and what it doesn’t say. I think it would leave the Wall Street rapists free and unencumbered, though.

  15. Today’s Mount Vernon crew do bring up the Declaration, but only so they could work in a mention of God, who is inconveniently missing from the Constitution itself (courtesy of the “godless liberals” who wrote it).

    That’s a valid point, but it’s not their only objective. They are also trying to secure a lock on history that insures them a political foundation that is unassailable, and to unite two documents that are unrelated in purpose and intent to be understood as inseparable in the minds and understanding of the founding fathers.

    The Mount Vernon Statement is basic gobbledygook designed to dazzle the untrained mind deficient in historical awareness. While reading it with it’s countless repetitions and various forms and usages of the word “conservative” I could see clearly what Thomas Paine referred to as a legerdemain in his attempts to battle the same noxious spirit in his writings of the Age of Reason..

  16. Swame,
    I’m awaiting the conservative version of Paine’s “The Age of Reason.”
    ‘Reason’ing requires thinking, which makes you a pointy-headed elitist.
    Their Paine will write, “The Age of Feeling.”
    Or, maybe they’ll just steal the beginning of some a HST’s books: just “Fear and Loathing!”
    ‘Fear and loathing’ won’t have to be about anything in particular; it’ll describe the means by which they wish to achieve their ends.

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