American Democracy’s Greatest Strength? That Would Be Its People

October 19, 2023
Student presenting at Oratory Competition

Peter Lee Hamilton, a graduate student enrolled in both the Darden School of Business and the School of Law, recalls his family’s history in an award-winning speech at Wednesday’s third annual UVA Student Oratory, sponsored by the Karsh Institute of Democracy. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

It’s a story of immigrants from Ireland and North Korea who came to find better lives for themselves and their posterity. An American story. His story.

And it was a story good enough to take the top prize Wednesday night in the third annual University of Virginia Student Oratory competition, held in the Rotunda Dome Room.

Peter Lee Hamilton, a graduate student enrolled in both the Darden School of Business and the School of Law, told the Rotunda audience and five judges – four of whom have served as presidential speechwriters – that his grandparents, their reasons for coming to the U.S. and their families’ successes are examples of American democracy’s greatest strength.

He joined seven other student orators in the competition, all seeking to answer the question “What is the greatest strength of our American democracy?”.

Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia
Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia

For Hamilton, American democracy’s strength lies in the drive and direction of its people, many who came with nothing, seeking something better.

“It’s really the American people, and that’s what my speech was about,” Hamilton said between congratulatory handshakes and greetings afterward.

Hamilton said he was proud to participate in the event, sponsored by UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy, Think Again @ UVA, the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, University Democrats and College Republicans.

“It’s amazing to win, but the greatest pleasure of all is being able to hear the other students share their experiences and answers and really engage in this collective moment and think about this big question,” he said.

The crowd looks on
Participants answered the question “What is the greatest strength of American democracy?” From the foreground are Deanna Wilbourn, Reese Whittaker, Kyle Riopelle, Kellen Narke, Peter Lee Hamilton, Nahor Hagos, Thomas Davies and Ryan Conn. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The annual event gives students a chance to hone their rhetorical skill, to explore and question their own beliefs, and to persuade others. Those are necessary skills, said Melody Barnes, executive director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy.

“The ability to shape clear and persuasive points is critical in communications and to a healthy and thriving democracy,” she said while introducing the orators. “Being a part of this competition shows that you value robust engagement and are committed to strengthening your own speaking habits.”

Besides Hamilton, presenters included students Ryan Conn, Thomas Davies, Nahor Hagos, Kellen Narke, Kyle Riopelle, Reese Whittaker and Deanna Wilbourn.

Their presentations varied. Some stalked the stage. Some centered themselves at the podium. Some spoke formally, calling upon the historic personages in the pantheon of American icons, while others took the fireside chat approach, spinning yarns and telling family stories.

Their ideas of American democracy’s greatest strength varied. Some said it was the people’s willingness to stand up to tyranny. Others argued that political conflict, built into American politics, made it strong. For others, people-centered political and social movements were the backbone.

Above shot of the Rotunda dome room looking onto an audience and podium with a student speaker
Mary Kate Cary, adjunct professor with the UVA Department of Politics, addresses the Rotunda audience prior to the UVA Student Oratory competition. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Most, however, touched at least partly on the unique characteristics of American society as immigrant-led and driven to succeed from the very beginning.

After receiving his $500 prize and a seat on the judging panel for next year’s event, Hamilton reiterated his belief that Americans are the greatest strength in its democracy. But, he warned, they need to accept that power.

“We need to commit ourselves in our daily actions to the values that make our country great,” he said. “That means giving people grace, being hospitable, being committed to the truth and committed to freedom, liberty and engaging in those conversations with our friends and neighbors in a way that really helps us build a country that is a community and that is built to be advancing those values.”

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications