WASHINGTON, DC - House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (MD) spoke today after receiving an honorary degree from Washington College at their George Washington Birthday Convocation. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“‘I am too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors.’ George Washington left his country’s service with those words, in his farewell address. Here was a man who had already been honored in his lifetime as ‘Father of his Country’—and he still chose to leave us with a reminder of his humanity.
“Today, if we want to find humility like George Washington’s, we can look here. Here, and in any place of real education, we have an institution set up to remind us, even when we are feeling at our most powerful, that we are still far short of perfection and subject to err.
“In places like this, we study astronomy and learn that our planetary home, which for us is the center of the universe, is in fact in the far, far outskirts.
“We study biology and learn that we, who seem to be set apart entirely from the animals, in fact share more than 90% of our heritage with a mouse.
“We read history and literature and find that our best and most precious thoughts were already thought a hundred, or three hundred, or a thousand years ago. And this realization of humility doesn’t just happen once. It happens again and again in the lifetime of any individual who takes those discoveries to heart and learns to question his or her intuitions and prejudices, especially when they are easy or pleasing or convenient.
“What we should glean from our education is a conviction that, in the words of the poet Tennyson, ‘Though much is taken, much abides.’ For all of us, there is still so much to learn. And, as we learn from Washington's example, there is space for error even in the best of us.
“Let me give you another example. Today we celebrate George Washington’s birthday—but in a few days, it will be the birthday of another man who was famous and powerful and feared in his time, and who was born not far from here. He graduated at the top of his class. He rose to be a cabinet secretary and then served as a judge for nearly three decades.
“In that time, he stood out for the dignity and the legal wisdom he brought to the bench, and when he died, one of his colleagues wrote that his decisions would, ‘command the admiration and gratitude of every lover of constitutional liberty, so long as our institutions shall endure.’
“The same colleague praised him as ‘a man of singular purity of life and character’—a man whose passions, outside the law, were taking long walks in the fresh air and caring for his sickly daughter, Ellen.
“But I don’t think you know him for any of that.
“His name was Roger Taney, and if you know him at all, it is as the author of the Dred Scott decision upholding slavery, everywhere in America. You know him as the chief justice who ruled that a black man was not a man. And he did so without a doubt.
“Roger Taney, it is said, was a kind and learned man. Nevertheless, from a position of power, he reaffirmed the worst prejudices of his time.
“In that, he was no different from so many of the best men of his day. In that, he was no different from this college’s namesake, and his colleagues, whom we revere as our founders. Is he different from us? Maybe. But then, what makes us think that we, out of every generation, are uniquely right? The odds alone say that we are not. They say that we too, are prone to human error in thought and deed.
“Let me tell you two of them that come to my mind, not necessarily because they are the worst of the worst, but because they are pressing issues in Congress right now.
“For one, it is a sad fact that of all of the world’s democracies, only one has a national capital without a voting member of the national legislature. Washington, D.C. is a city of 600,000 people and dozens of monuments to democracy—and no vote in Congress. For more than two centuries, as barrier after barrier to the vote fell, the people of the District have been treated more like subjects than citizens. Early next month, the House is going to take a vote to fix that.
“Another deep error is the fiscal irresponsibility and debt that have characterized our country for too many years of the past quarter-century.
“It spread from a government that turned a $5.6 trillion surplus into record deficits, to businesses that took on risks they could never afford, to families that lived far beyond their means.
“Millions helped to create a culture of profligacy—and today, we are all paying for it. Our children and grandchildren will pay for it, too. President Obama called for an economic recovery plan because economists agree that deficit spending is, ironically, the way out of this historically deep recession.
“But I believe that our efforts will fail unless we finish the job and get our country back on the path to responsibility, starting with real efforts for entitlement reform, and a serious national budget for serious times.
“To be critical of what we are doing or what we have done is a first step. The point of being self-critical isn’t to find what we already know is wrong—it is to find the wrongs that we accept without thinking.
“The far end of our education isn’t a degree.
“It is the humility to know that there remains much that we do not know, and much that we still have to do. And it is the courage to take that fact not as an excuse for paralysis, but as an inspiration to act.
“George Washington and his contemporaries had such courage, and used it to form a more perfect union—and now, ‘though much is taken, much abides.’ May each of us, empowered and enlightened by our education, continue Washington's work.”