Heroes and Villains

How Jourdon Anderson Understood Justice

Exploring the virtue of justice, defined as standing for equally applied rules and making sure everyone obeys them. The lesson looks at the life of Jourdon Anderson, an escaped slave who wrote a letter to his former master in 1865. The lesson explores two central questions: How can I seek justice on behalf of another person? On behalf of myself?

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Suggested Launch Activity

CENTRAL QUESTIONS: How can I seek justice on behalf of another person? On behalf of myself?

Post or project this definition of justice (as a civic virtue): Standing for equally applied rules and making sure everyone obeys them.

Ask: Have you ever wished you had said or done something in response to someone’s words or actions, but thought of just the right words or action when it was too late to do or say it? Allow time for brief discussion.

Introduce a “quick-write” using the following prompt: Describe a time you either witnessed or experienced an injustice. What happened? How did you respond? Are you satisfied with how you responded? Why or why not?

Assign students to groups of 3-4 and have students discuss and compare how they responded in their respective situations. Have them compare and discuss any regrets. After they have had some time to discuss, ask: Does having at least one other person with you help you to address injustice? Why?

As a large group, discuss: Why can it be helpful to have others join in addressing unjust situations?

Transition to the Jourdan Anderson narrative and letter, telling students that in 1865, a man who had fled injustice had an opportunity to say some things he had previously not said to his oppressor. As you read about him, pay attention to the people along the way who stood alongside him in ways that may seem small to us now. And think about what character traits it required for Mr. Anderson to say what he did.

About Launch Activities

The optional introductory activity above is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.

Lesson Background

Jourdon Anderson was enslaved in Tennessee. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in rebelling territories in 1863, but because Tennessee was under Union control, the Proclamation did not free the slaves there….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

Berlin, Ira, et al. Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Blight, David W. A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation. Reprint ed. New York: Mariner, 2009.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Below are corresponding literature and film suggestions to help you teach this virtue across the curriculum. Sample prompts have been provided for the key corresponding works. For the other suggested works, or others that are already part of your curriculum, create your own similar prompts.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Jean Valjean is willing to forfeit all that he has and all that he has worked for in order to prevent an innocent man from serving a prison sentence meant for him. How does this action display a commitment to justice? How do other characters act virtuously?

The Law of the Wolves by Rudyard Kipling
Compare and contrast “the law of the jungle”, as described in this poem, with “standing for equally applied rules and making sure everyone obeys them.”

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford
Closely read both the words and illustrations in this picture book to identify and discuss the themes of justice included in it. With what specific actions did Harriet Tubman address injustice? What else do you know about Tubman? What additional civic virtues are evident in Tubman’s life and actions? In those of the other people represented in the book? Compare Harriet Tubman to Frederick Douglass. What character traits did they have in common?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Antigone by Sophocles

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