Hey folks, my name is Beth Wagner. I am a rising third year double majoring in Political Philosophy & Law and History. Many of you all probably spent your Fourth of July cooking out, relaxing by the pool, and watching fireworks. I know I certainly did. After whiling away the day eating ribs and catching up with friends who had come in for the weekend, I headed up to Monticello for a mountaintop view of the fireworks exploding all over Albemarle County. When we arrived at the visitor’s center, school buses shuttled us over to where friends and family of the Monticello staff had gathered on top of Montalto, Monticello’s neighboring mountain. As we sat there, watching dusk gather over the blue ridge mountains, I could not help but think about how differently the atmosphere must have been on the day that has inspired almost 250 years of celebration.
When the founding fathers put their pens to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the mood must have been anything but carefree. By signing the declaration, they were committing the highest form of treason, literally signing their lives over to the cause. Patrick Henry was not exaggerating when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Remembering the bravery and sacrifices that gave birth to this country reminds me that I often take what we have for granted. I never think twice about voicing my political opinions. I have never hidden my religion. I have never been denied the right to vote. When I watch brave men and women in other countries risking their lives for a vote, I’m appalled that less than 60% of Americans choose to use theirs.
Obviously our country is not perfect, but it’s easy to forget to appreciate our circumstances when they seem so fundamental. It’s crazy to think that the American democracy started out largely as an experiment. No one had any idea if democracy could work on such a large scale. Case and point: the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia largely because he felt that the way to ensure the preservation of this country was to cultivate its citizens. Jefferson’s neo-classical style of architecture serves as a tribute to the first successful democracies of Greece and Rome. Jefferson centered his university around a library rather than a chapel to mirror the fundamental American value of separation of church and state. I walk around the lawn and I am reminded that I’m not here just to make friends and take tests. Thomas Jefferson imbued his university with the same responsibility that he carried on his own shoulders: the responsibility of citizenship.
So as I sat on the mountain, watching fireworks glinting off the copper dome of the Rotunda below, I felt more than just pride. I love my country, I’m proud to be an American, but, more than anything, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for those Americans who came before me. And I won’t let them down.