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Sen. Jim Webb's Charter Day remarks

  • Sen. Jim WebbU.S. Senator (D-Va.) Jim Webb was the keynote speaker at the College's Charter Day ceremony.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Sen. Jim Webb

U.S. Senator (D-Va.) Jim Webb gave the keynote address at the College's Charter Day ceremony on Feb. 7. The following are his remarks. - Ed.

President Reveley, Chancellor O'Connor, Rector Powell, Members of the Board of Visitors, Faculty and students-and I am greatly impressed by the quality of the students that have received awards and the faculty that have received awards today. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is an honor to participate in this ceremony today to receive this degree from your university, and I would say it's a great honor to stand here with Mr. Lowry and also in his absence John Hope Franklin, whose works I have read over the years and whom I tremendously admire.

I almost didn't make it. I don't know if all of you know what we've been going through on the Senate floor this week. This has been a very, very challenging time for the country and it's culminated in the debates that we've been having on the floor and off the floor in the Senate. I have been participating very strongly in the negotiations a group of senators chose to have off the floor during the week to try to take the stimulus package [and] make it relevant, make it something people can believe in, and actually get it passed. We ceased our discussions and activities on the Senate floor after midnight last night. We will reconvene on Monday. We will get this done, we will get it done in a way that will be good for the economy of the country and fair to the people who are going to have to pay the tax burden that will come along side of it. All of that was a very long way of saying that I'm standing here with three hours of sleep and four cups of coffee. But it's an event that I was really honored to be invited to come to and I would not have missed it.

This is my first visit to a Charter Day celebration and as I was preparing for this event and thinking about it, it was impossible not to be struck by the rich history of this institution as well as the long-standing tradition of public service that is embraced by its students and its alumni. Actually, we went to the Senate Historian as I was preparing for this event, and I am told that the seat that I now hold in the Senate has also been held by nine graduates of this college, two of them--James Monroe and John Tyler--as you know, ultimately served as presidents of the United States. It's rather remarkable when you think about it that in our entire history, only 29 people have had this particular seat in the United States Senate, and almost a third of them have attended this institution.

By contrast, I come to you humbly as a reluctant and marginally proficient engineer. The first Naval Academy graduate to serve as a senator in this great commonwealth, but also as the first senator in our state to be an alumnus of that infamous Jesuit institution known for producing weapons and bomb-throwers, the Georgetown University Law Center--which, Rector Powell, I think, has some experience with as well.

You could imagine my own confusion as a young man from having survived the philosophical thermocouple of these contradictory institutions, and I suspect that both the science and liberal arts majors in the room can appreciate the inherent contradictions to that particular combination of terms. This is what happens when you force a novelist to study entropy and the thermodynamic properties of steam. He ends up in his later years bemoaning philosophical thermocouples, and deciding, nine months to the day before an election that it might make logical sense to run for the Senate. But, I have I say, I was never required to measure proton inefficiencies as Kelly Hallinger apparently was able to do [during her years here] according to the presentations that were just made.

I can also say that I make up for this inadequacy of not having attended William & Mary by the fact that my Chief of Staff, Paul Reagan ('81), is an alumnus of your institution. He's actually with us here today somewhere. So the tradition does live on in our office.
This campus is replete with history. William & Mary established the first law school in the new world. It is home to the oldest academic building in continuous use in our country. And, impressively, this institution founded the first Greek letter society devoted to academic achievement.

The charter that you recite this morning evokes these and many other aspects of this institution's historic journey. As someone who has spent much of my career as a writer and writing about, and promoting, the study of American history, I applaud you for staying so closely connected that past.

Because I am a writer, I couldn't resist thinking about what Virginia and our young colonies must have looked like back in 1693 when this charter was granted. We know that in addition to the incredible hardships of life in colonial Virginia, after the founding of Jamestown in 1607, early Virginia evolved into a three-tiered society.

By 1690, there were still far fewer than 100,000 people living in Virginia-the best estimates I have seen are probably around 60,000. At the top, there was a landed aristocracy of wealthier families who owed much to the ruling royalty in the mother country. Men like Lord Fairfax had been granted huge tracts of land by the English monarchy-in fact, Lord Fairfax had a land grant that was larger in size than the entire country of Wales. They often educated their children back in England. They were almost without exception members of the Anglican Church, and you saw the prevailing church of the day reflected even in the charter that was earlier read. Taxes were paid to that church. One could not advance in government or social circles if they were not a member. The coastal aristocracy has come to be known in modern parlance as the First Families of Virginia.

The second tier of this society was made up of a largely but not exclusively white underclass of tradesmen, artisans and small farmers, some of whom who had come to Virginia as indentured servants or as convicts transported from England in lieu of death or long prison sentences, and also of free persons of color. And the third tier of colonial Virginia consisted of slaves brought to this nation from Africa.

In my book "Born Fighting," I examined how my ancestors the Scots-Irish, or as they are known in Ireland the Ulster Scots, came to Virginia and actually created a fourth tier to this society. Less than a decade after the charter of the College of William and Mary was granted, the leaders of the Virginia colony began allowing the Scots-Irish to settle freely in the mountains of Virginia and to practice their own form of Calvinist Presbyterianism, which at that time was contrary to colonial law, if they would put their families and their communities between the lowlands and the Indian tribes with which the colonial government was at war. This culture had been bred on the populist notions coming out of the Scottish Kirk of the Protestant Reformation. It had spent a century trapped between the dominant Anglican English of the Ulster Plantation and the rebellious native Irish Catholics. Its military traditions extended for a thousand years, from the border wars between England and Scotland to the rebellious in Ireland itself. These were a fiercely independent group of people. They have been labeled as the original nonconformists of the English rulers of Ulster, for their refusal to accept any political edict that violated their personal views of moral conduct.

The Scots-Irish brought farming to regions of Virginia that were not hospitable to the plantation system. They brought military traditions that put them at the forefront of the pioneer tradition and built a framework of the leadership that defines the United States military. And it can be argued that America's populist-style democracy has its roots in the cultural history of the Scots-Irish, who in later periods settled large portions of the non-slaveholding South.

And I must point out, rather ironically, given that this is the day that we celebrate the royal charter for this institution, that they were fiercely anti-royalist. One of my favorite quotes from my book "Born Fighting" was that of a Hessian officer who had been sent here to fight for the British during our revolution. He wrote home, "call this war by whatever name you man, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion."

And so I, the product of those ancestors-six of whom fought in the American revolution-and of the results of that rebellion, stand proudly along with you today, whatever the circumstances of your own family's journey to this country, to celebrate more than three centuries of excellence for an institution that has, just as our country itself, grown and adapted and all the while contributed to the greatness of American itself. The early commitment to education by the colonists who founded this institution has been furthered, in the grandest tradition of true intellectual and philosophical growth, at a pace here that has kept it at the very forefront of the evolution of our country itself.

Modern Virginia is, of course nothing like it was in 1693. We have evolved into a state of 7.8 million people with as diverse a population as there is anywhere in our country. Indeed it can be argued-and I have argued repeatedly-that Virginia is a true demographic microcosm of the country itself. With the help of schools just like this one, we have built the foundation for strong and diverse economy. To be sure, we are in the midst of a deep and serious recession, and we are working everyday with the new President to restore that economy and to put people back to work and to keep the jobs of those who still have. One of the forces that will hasten our recovery, and I take the point that was made a couple of times earlier, is sustained support for research and develop, and higher education.

We can be satisfied with how far we have come to achieve a more inclusive society. To harness science and technology for the benefit of all our people and to extend the promise of higher education to more Americans.

There remains-and there always should remain-a frustration with how far we have to go. For me, our most important journey in the country today, is to restore basic economic fairness. To close the massive gulf that now exists between the people at the very top in this country and everyone else.

Let me share a couple of data points with you: the story last July in the "Wall Street Journal," was that the wealthiest 1% of Americans earned 22% of the nation's total adjusted gross income in 2006. That is up from 21% a year earlier, and it is the highest percentage in the 19 years that the IRS has kept those records.

At the same time their income went up, the average tax rate at the top fell to its lowest level in 18 years. This along with a lot of other policies that need to be examined, has created the largest income gap in this country since the 1920s. When I graduated from college in 1968, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made in the United States of America. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much as the average work.

In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone, our best hope for a strong future, has been steadily losing its place at the table. And our workers know this through painful experience. And now all of us are beginning to understand the ramifications of this divide, which I have been speaking of for many years, as we seek ways to bring our country out of this current economic crisis, much of which was brought about, quite frankly, by policies that favored those who are already advantaged, that allowed too many corporations to take advantage of unfair tax policies in the name of fair trade with other nations, that unwisely de-regulated financial systems, and that, in the end, simply failed to protect the men and women who through their work and their commitment to their families have always carried the well-being of our country on their backs.

It is critical to the health of our democracy that we reverse these trends. We started to do this in 2007 when we were able to increase the minimum wage for the first time in several years, we passed legislation early in this Congress to expand health care coverage for more poor and middle class children. We must do more, ladies and gentlemen. You have my pledge that I am doing everything I can to enact legislation that will achieve greater fairness in our tax code, provide new tools to bring a proper balance in our trade policies, and ensure the government programs now being brought forth under this Administration's stimulus package will go to investments in infrastructure and programs that will create good jobs.

One of the great Scots-Irish pioneers, the first person from that migration to hold the presidency, Andrew Jackson, established an important principle of American-style democracy-that you measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with numbers, however shaky they are these days, that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist among the people who are carrying the true load of society.

As you write the next chapter in the long history of this distinguished university, I hope you will embrace Jackson's principle and will make it a part of your mission.

As a public institution formed in order to benefit what the British Crown in your charter called its "well-beloved and trusty subjects," William & Mary is certainly well-positioned to play a leading role in the important work of restoring economic fairness and opportunity to our country.

I thank you for the invitation to speak today, and for the opportunity share in this important ceremony. I wish all of you the best. Thank you.