By Nick DAngelo
When Thomas Jefferson looked for inspiration to design the University of Virginia, the architect of both Monticello and the Declaration of Independence looked no farther than Union.
By 1825 when Jefferson’s school was completed, the horseshoe campus designed and implemented in Schenectady by Joseph Ramée had already existed for over a decade.
In fact, Jefferson was so meticulous in his design that he even imitated the direction of Union’s campus.
To Jefferson and to Ramée before him, the direction the campus faced was just as significant as any individual building or architectural style. These institutions, which would further the revolutionary spirit of intellectualism and egalitarianism, would face westward.
According to architect Robert Stern, Jefferson built his philosophy into his architecture, inspiring students to travel west to build a “New Rome in America,” an “Empire for Liberty” that would “last for millennia.”
But it started with Union. As we all know, it is no coincidence that Union’s campus faces the west. It servies to remind us of our ever-forward movement.
In the early 19th century, as Union defined its scholastic purpose, the Great Frontier was what historian Frederick Jackson Turner called a perennial rebirth of a dominating American character.
The west was reminiscent and symbolic of the infinite potential afforded the fledgling republic, representative of an opportunity to be seized by future generations of Americans.
In that context, it is obvious that Union never settled for stagnation. Rather, since its inception, our college has embraced the energy of innovation.
Through the symbolic positioning of our campus, our predecessors evoked a spirit of purposeful pursuit. This was not a conquest for personal glory. Additionally, the philosophy embodied in “Manifest Destiny” is not about imperialism.
As historian Frederick Merk argued in 1963, this was not about continentalism, but about the fulfillment of a higher purpose.
Woodrow Wilson, in his 1920 address to Congress after World War I, further dissected the ideology of frontierism, noting that it was rooted in the fulfillment of self-determination.
While Wilson defined that in terms of America’s responsibility to spread democracy as a world leader, we can adopt it to our own interpretation.
Quite simply, the role of the individual in contributing to a community matters.
In our 21st century, we have grown used to wonders, but remain just as curious as the pioneers of yesterday, continuing to move forward into that frontier horizon.
While it is a new opportunity that stands before us, the symbolism remains abundantly appropriate.
With great promise and tremendous hope, the students of Union are charged to do all we can in the time we are given to leave this world better than we have found it.
Our efforts must be committed to the future, to that egalitarian expansionism and to an honest contribution to society.
It was never enough to stand outside the fire, and for centuries the students of Union have courageously periled through it.
The challenge and ideal envisioned in our campus so many decades ago remains the purpose we inherit from Union.
We have come this far through a wellspring of individualism, and the time has come to not only fight for ourselves, but also for our communities.
After all, why should your life be just about you? In every field and all across our world, we must recognize that community interests, in so many regards, transcend those of the individual, and that it is a single individual that often makes a communal difference.
We are all better off when each of us has the ability to achieve our own potential.
At Union, generations of students have been given the opportunity to manifest their own destinies.
It does not just end when you leave Union’s gates. That purpose continues long after graduation, with the great expectation that it will be utilized.
Our time at Union will soon come to an end. But then the real work begins, our individual purposes surge forward and we move steadfastly towards that frontier horizon.
In 1992, during a dispute between the University of Virginia (the institution Jefferson founded) and the College of William & Mary (the institution Jefferson attended), the former presented the latter with a statue of its distinguished alumnus.
The gift came with a catch though, a single corollary agreement. The statue of Thomas Jefferson must always face westward.