Conservatives Should Honor Founding Principles

Elders in the conservative movement gathered near George Washington's estate last week to sign a document setting forth their shared beliefs. The resulting manifesto, dubbed the Mount Vernon Statement, harks back to the founding of the United States. If I may paraphrase, its signatories affirm that George Washington, the Declaration of Independence, and the United States Constitution are all awesome.

So self-evident were the truths expressed that many commentators on the right questioned the value of restating them. "Where there are unresolved differences within the center-right coalition," David Frum wrote, "a good manifesto would put those issues aside rather than try to present a false image of unity through empty verbal formulas." Jesse Walker of Reason magazine said, "The rhetoric here is so all-inclusive and platitudinous as to be practically meaningless."

Critics of the Mount Vernon Statement nevertheless miss its most interesting contradiction. In rhetoric, every faction in the conservative movement, from rank-and-file tea partiers wearing 18th-century garb to esteemed members of the Federalist Society, affirms belief in America's Founders, the documents they drafted, and the principled framework they bestowed upon us. As a libertarian-leaning conservative, I join them. In reality, however, the war on terrorism has made for a minority of conservatives who retain faith in the founding vision. Loath though mainstream conservatives are to admit it, the right today is far more unified around an opposite belief: that the principled framework established by the Founders is inadequate to these uniquely dangerous times. Movement conservatives co-opt the popularity of the founding by pledging their fealty to it, even as they advocate policies utterly incompatible with what its architects intended.

The Mount Vernon Statement is one example. "What is one to make of the organizers' selection of the site of George Washington's home for a statement that refers to a foreign policy of 'advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world'?" Daniel Larison of The American Conservative asks. Indeed, President Washington advised his successors to have with foreign nations "as little political connexion as possible." As for movement conservatism's antipathy toward Cuba and Iran, and its special affection for Israel and Britain, one can imagine our first commander in chief reiterating his admonition that "nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded."

In the military conflict that posed the greatest existential threat our republic has ever faced—the Revolutionary War—General Washington commanded his troops to humanely treat British soldiers and even Hessian missionaries, suggesting that death wouldn't be too harsh a punishment for any American soldier caught abusing them. In the current conflict, prisoners of war have been shackled, walled, waterboarded, and even killed during particularly overzealous interrogations.

And note this passage from President Washington's farewell address: "It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence ... In the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it."

Do we put "exalted justice" and "benevolence" ahead of "temporary advantages" in the war on terrorism? To cite but one counterexample, George W. Bush knowingly held innocent Uighur Muslims in Guantánamo Bay for years on end because he couldn't figure out where to release them, and his conservative base was vociferously against releasing them in the United States.

Movement conservatives rightly invoke the founding documents as the ideal to which we must return. "All men are created equal," the Declaration of Independence states, "endowed by their Creator with unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But does Dick Cheney believe this? I am not being flip. When the United States paid bounty hunters to round up terrorist suspects in Pakistan, the vice president took the following position: these possibly innocent detainees, snapped up far from the battlefield in the territory of a supposed ally, possessed no right to due process or an attorney; the United States government could subject them to waterboarding and stress positions; and the judiciary had no right to review their detention.

When some were found to have been wrongly imprisoned, their innocence was shown and their liberty restored via processes Cheney opposed, and still opposes. Did he not advocate depriving these men of their liberty? Yet the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank dedicated to restoring the principles of the American founding, intends to honor Cheney with its 2010 Statesmanship Award. He'll be cheered by a roomful of conservative scholars and donors.

Even more striking is how little many movement conservatives think of the Constitution's core bulwark against tyranny: the separation of powers. The Bush administration asserted unchecked power to conduct raids and wiretap phone calls without search warrants, to declare American citizens enemy combatants without review by the judiciary, and to unilaterally break duly ratified foreign treaties.

The Obama administration claims the power to assassinate American citizens accused of terrorism without any due process or judicial oversight, and to track without a warrant any American who carries a cell phone. In all this, conservatives are sanguine in deferring to the commander in chief, despite the fact that a war on terrorism may never end.

As noted in Federalist 47, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." How can movement conservatives claim that all these powers should be exclusively vested in the executive for the indefinite duration of an ill-defined conflict, and simultaneously insist that they are reasserting constitutional governance in American life? As Larison notes, "This is not a gap that can be bridged by shouting, 'Constitution!' in a loud voice."

A few signatories of the Mount Vernon Statement are due more credit than that. In a recent open letter, for example, noted fiscal conservative Grover Norquist and American Conservative Union president David Keene addressed terrorism and the need to try its perpetrators within the justice system. "This includes our system of federal prisons, which have repeatedly proven they can safely hold persons convicted of terrorism," they wrote. "We are confident that the government can preserve national security without resorting to sweeping and radical departures from an American constitutional tradition that has served us effectively for over two centuries."

In my estimation, our founding ideals are adequate to all present security needs, but it is perfectly reasonable for others to dissent from that conclusion. Indeed, some liberals do the same when it comes to dispatching with the Second Amendment to protect inner-city residents from gun crime. It's perfectly fine for any movement conservative to argue that surviving in an age of terrorism requires that we reject George Washington's counsel, rethink the Declaration's wisdom, and amend the United States Constitution.

But conservatives should not invoke the Founders to bolster their popularity while marshaling that popularity in service of policies utterly contrary to constitutional designs. Thus the single possible benefit of the Mount Vernon Statement: having asserted the necessity of returning to America's founding principles, its signatories ought to be held to their words.