Remarks by Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb Founder’s Day Ceremony, April 11, 2014

Thank you, Don King, for that kind introduction.  And let me take a moment to also thank President Leslie Greene Bowman and Dean Harry Harding, and those who work with them at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and at the Batten School of Leadership at the University of Virginia, for all of the courtesies that have been extended to me and to my wife Hong during our visit.  I’m grateful to be joining such a distinguished group of people who have previously received the Foundation’s Citizen Leadership Medal, and also to be saying a few words on these historic grounds. 

James H. Webb, Jr., speaking on the steps of Monticello's West Portico.
James H. Webb, Jr., speaking on the steps of Monticello's West Portico. (Photo by Jack Looney.)

You know, when I was told I would be receiving this Medal and that I would be invited to speak, I was also gently reminded – in print – that if I wanted to use any Thomas Jefferson quotes, the Foundation would be happy to verify for me whether Mr. Jefferson actually ever said or wrote the words that were being quoted.  In fact, the exact sentence was, “Thomas Jefferson is one of the most quoted and misquoted of the Founders.  Staff at Monticello stand ready assist in providing or verifying quotes or facts…” 

Now, let’s face it.  Every single person who comes to Thomas Jefferson’s home in order to celebrate his birthday and receive an award named in his honor starts off with a little bit of an inferiority complex.  Here is a guy who built this wonderful home, invented all sorts of things, read sixteen hours a day – I did not verify this fact with Monticello but I did read it in a book that won two Pulitzer Prizes – founded a university, wrote the Declaration of Independence, and oh, by the way, served as Secretary of State and President, just to name a few of his political offices.  So it’s kind of natural to want to find some really obscure but powerful quote just to prove that we’ve paid enough attention to Mr. Jefferson’s career and can do better than simply spouting out the stock phrases that are required learning for just about every eighth grader in the country. 

But if you’ll forgive me, I think I’ll take a little different approach today.  I want to stick with Mr. Jefferson’s most remembered words.  They have had enormous impact throughout America and all over the world.  And yet, in the ultimate irony, they have often been used against him by some critics who wish to demean his brilliance and his vision by blaming him for things he did not do, rather than celebrating the historic accomplishment of what he actually did.  And as we consider all this, let’s also give some thought to whether we ourselves might be missing something in the way we have approached issues of equality and opportunity in modern times, and whether we who live in this generation might in the future be faulted for an incomplete set of answers by those who come along twenty, or fifty, or maybe a hundred years from now.

The quote, obviously, is from the Declaration of Independence.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

In terms of theology and the natural rights of humankind, it seems clear and inarguable to most of us that this great quote meant the same thing when Mr. Jefferson wrote it as it does today, even though the interpretations of its meaning might be different.  But in terms of how societies function in one era or the next and how governments perform, these words are aspirational, written in the context of society as it then defined the terms.  The words also mark a journey that still continues.   Some argue that the slave-holding Mr. Jefferson was philosophically disingenuous to have written such words while keeping his slaves, and I’m sure there are a lot of strong opinions in this audience on that point.  For the moment, however, let us understand the power of the words themselves as they have been used to help shape the future. 

Throughout history there have been a handful of documents that have shaped governmental systems and human rights in ways that far transcend the original intention of the document itself.  The Magna Carta comes immediately to mind, an agreement signed in 1215 by King John of England during a confrontation with his most powerful barons in a rural place called Runnymedes.  The Magna Carta is credited with beginning England’s march toward representative government, defining certain limits to a monarch’s authority, and creating the beginnings of democracy.  But in 1215, its purpose and its immediate effect was that the king acknowledged he was in some ways accountable to the layer of aristocrats who ranked just below him.  The Barons who forced King John to sign it wanted to make sure he was accountable to them, not to the serfs and cobblers who lacked nobility.  But the principle that was established with that document marked England’s irreversible march toward a judicial and parliamentary system, and ultimately to democracy itself.

And so it was with Thomas Jefferson’s historic words in the Declaration of Independence. 

Let’s consider the era, and the journey.  Virginia, and indeed the American South, was a complicated place in Thomas Jefferson’s day, and in the decades thereafter.  Contrary to popular mythology, it was not simply a land of white versus black, or of widespread ownership of slaves.  The old South was a three-tiered society, with blacks and ordinary whites both living under a veneer of white elites – forgive me for pointing this out here in Charlottesville, but they were known as the Cavaliers – who often manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power. As John Hope Franklin, one of our most eminent African-American historians pointed out, at the height of slavery, in 1860, less than 5% of whites in the South owned slaves. Franklin wrote that "fully three-fourths of the white people in the South had neither slaves nor an immediate economic interest in the maintenance of slavery."   When slavery ended and the inhumanity of the Jim Crow laws began, this three-tiered system continued. 

The Civil War devastated the South, in human and economic terms. And from post-Civil War Reconstruction to the beginning of World War II, the region was a ravaged place, affecting black and white alike.   In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt created a national commission to study what he termed "the long and ironic history of the despoiling of this truly American section." At that time, most industries in the South were owned by companies outside the region. Of the South's 1.8 million sharecroppers, 1.2 million were white, a mirror of the population, which was 71% white. The illiteracy rate was five times that of the North-Central states and more than twice that of New England and the Middle Atlantic, despite the waves of European immigrants then flowing to those regions. The total endowments of all the colleges and universities in the South were less than the endowments of Harvard and Yale alone. The average schoolchild in the South had $25 a year spent on his or her education, compared to $141 for children in New York.

Thus wrote President Roosevelt’s national commission, in 1938.

In earlier days when Thomas Jefferson on wrote the lasting words in the Declaration of Independence and when he served as President, Virginia represented all of the promise and all of the imperfections that this new land had to offer.  Later on, as the South worked to rebuild itself from the ravages of Civil War and Reconstruction, Virginia continued to represent some of the best and worst practices of the American experience.  I often reflect that until the late 1960’s Virginia law would have precluded me and my wife from marrying, since we are of different races.  The state has grown, from some 800,000 in 1800 to more than 8 million.  It has also become more ethnically complex.  In fact, Virginia is now a pretty accurate microcosm of the demographics and the challenges of the nation as a whole. 

Not everybody was a winner in this long march.  And because of the unique history of the American South, two cultural groups were hit the hardest, the irony being that African Americans and rural whites have so often been pitted against each other in our national debates, when in reality their historical journeys should make them firm allies.

So, let’s go back for a moment to the time when Thomas Jefferson studied and designed and dreamed and wrote on the grounds of this wonderful set of buildings and land.  In Virginia, two different worlds were busy creating a new America that would soon dominate our entire continent.  From this vantage point and to his east, Virginia had created the sometimes harsh model that is most remembered as the embodiment of the old South, a three-tiered society dominated by a small class of elites. 

To Jefferson’s west as he peered out from Monticello, down the long spine of mountains that form what now is called the far Southwest Virginia, hundreds of thousands of settlers dominated by the Scots-Irish, who in Ireland are remembered as the Ulster Scots, had poured out of Northern Ireland into the Appalachian Mountains and beyond.  These were not a slave-owning people.  They had a family-based military tradition that went back hundreds of years.  And upon reaching an agreement with the Governor of Virginia they had accepted a life in the wilderness along the frontier outposts in order to practice their Calvinist religion in a commonwealth where religious discrimination was a matter of law. 

The double Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Vernon Louis Parrington wrote of them, “they were desperately poor; the available lands near the coast were already pre-empted; so armed with axes, their seed potatoes, and the newly invented rifle, they plunged into the backwoods to become our great pioneering race.  A vigorous breed, hardy, assertive, individualistic, thrifty, trained in the democracy of the Scottish kirk, they were the material out of which later Jacksonian democracy was to be fashioned…”  

The Scots-Irish provided the bulk of our soldiers during the Revolutionary War, including one of my direct ancestors who served in the Virginia Line under George Washington and camped through the desolate winter at Valley Forge as well as three others who fought in the decisive battles at Kings Mountain and Cowpens.  Politically radical and rebellious, they held to the belief that no person owed his allegiance to any government whose edicts violated his personal moral code.  Deeply religious, makers of moonshine, often hedonistic, dismissive of wealth, they measured people not by the size of their homes or their bank accounts but by whether they respected them as human beings.  They created country music.  And over time they became the dominant culture of the non-slaveholding South.

There were no roads, schools, libraries, hospitals, or even governing structures.  The generations spent in remote rural areas had their rewards, but there also was a price to be paid, in terms of education, health care, and economic opportunity.  As with the fate of African Americans, generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight, and they affect the momentum of a culture.

In 1974, a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of white ethnic groups showed that white Baptists nationwide averaged only 10.7 years of education, a level almost identical to blacks' average of 10.6 years, and well below that of most other white groups. A recent NORC Social Survey of white adults born after World War II showed that in the years 1980-2000, only 18.4% of white Baptists and 21.8% of Irish Protestants—the principal ethnic group that settled the South—had obtained college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.  

These are cultural rather than simply individual distinctions.  As an example in microcosm, Clay County Kentucky, twenty miles or so from the Southwest Virginia border, is 95 percent white.  With a per capita income of $9,716 and 40 percent of its residents below the poverty line, Clay County has been reported to be the poorest county in America.  During my time in the Senate, a Remote Area Medical team came to the mountains of Wise County, Virginia, not far away, and in one weekend took care of 6,798 people, pulling more than 3,000 teeth as it operated in the open air of the Wise County fairgrounds. 

And yet, as we develop programs designed to increase diversity and to help disadvantaged minorities, our policy makers have no hesitation in lumping all white cultures together, creating false measuring sticks and in many cases creating a double disadvantage for those who are trying to get a fair shot at success.  First, these are people whose culture for a variety of reasons has been hard-hit for generations.  And second, because they are characterized in many government programs purely by their race, they are becoming ever more stuck at the bottom of a white America that is stratified and largely impervious to their needs. 

So today, as we measure Mr. Jefferson’s immortal words and as some seek to criticize him for his lack of actions in the face of his own expressed philosophy, I would suggest that we consider whether we ourselves are in some way doing the same thing?  In our good intentions to bring equality to America, have we fallen into something of a trap by making generalizations and even decisions based on race?  The truth in our society, as it becomes more apparent every day, is that vast differences in opportunity, wealth and power occur within every racial group, and in fact have become even greater rather than smaller due to programs put in place. 

And this is the major point that we should be considering today.  Whatever one’s view on other matters, we should agree with some urgency that the greatest issue facing the United States today is fairness, in all of its manifestations.  I made economic fairness and social justice the principle issues of my campaign for the Senate. I made economic fairness the key issue in my 2007 rebuttal to President Bush’s State of the Union address.  In this context I would like to read a short excerpt from my coming book:

I came to the Senate with no illusions.  During my campaign for office and at every possible opportunity after I was elected, I sought to highlight our country’s dangerous descent into a society where the elites at the very top have increasingly moved away from everyone else, until America threatens to become a modern-day version of a Banana Republic.  I arrived with a full appreciation of our political process, gained over many years from a wide variety of professional perspectives.  I have taken risks, sometimes making money and sometimes losing it, and between the two, to state the obvious, it feels a lot better to be making money.  I did not come to the Senate to soak the rich or to punish the powerful.  I want everybody to have the chance to become one or the other or maybe both.  There is nothing wrong with being rich.  Almost every American dreams of it, and it is a healthy dream for our country, as long as your riches and your influence are fairly earned. 

But in recent years, preceding and following my time in the Senate, I have worried about the atrophy of another part of what it means to be an American:  that we have thrived on a guarantee of fairness as well as opportunity, that our leaders have a moral duty to protect the weak and the vulnerable and also the dream-seekers, and that we must never allow the very rich to become our masters.  America was founded on a rebellion against royalty in whatever form it might reveal itself, and on a guarantee that mere wealth should never be allowed to dictate the political direction of the country.  Nothing would doom the American Dream more quickly than the establishment of a permanent, removed aristocracy, and quite frankly we are on the brink of allowing exactly that to happen.  The never-ending debate of how a society must balance an individual’s personal freedom with his larger obligation to community and country has marked every civilization for thousands of years.  But our unusual political system holds as its premise the belief that there should be no special access to the corridors of power other than through the force of argument and the rewards of individual talent. 

Putting boundaries on the misuse of influence by our most fortunate citizens without unfairly penalizing success is not a contradiction in terms.  People from all over the world have always clamored to come to America so that they might be allowed to succeed.  But the operative word is fair.  Americans by and large do not envy wealth, nor do they cringe before power.  But they have the right to expect our government leaders to ensure that we live inside a system that guarantees true fairness.   

Recent years have called that guarantee into question.  When I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968 the average corporate executive made twenty times the salary of his workers.  Today that multiple is around 400.  The reasons are complicated, but it is an axiom in Washington that when money talks, politicians too often balk... The silent losers, for more than four decades, have been those workers and small business owners in the middle, who have been paying an inordinate share of the tax bills to keep our system on track.  

It is not political bomb-throwing to point out the truth that those who wish to preserve this uncomfortable tilting of the table against our working people have the most money to spend on a wide variety of political fronts, while others who wish for more fundamental fairness lack the financial resources to back up their concerns, causing them to lose their influence in the corridors of power.  Having spent most of my professional life as a sole proprietor, I know the frustrations of this reality.

For our own societal health, we need to find a better way. 

End of quote.  But as Thomas Jefferson and others showed us so many years ago, we do need to have the courage and the wisdom and the intellect to find a better way.