Heroes and Villains

The Responsibilities of Frederick Douglass

An in-depth look at responsibility through the life of Fredrick Douglass. Responsibility is defined as striving to know and to do what is best rather than what is most popular. To be trustworthy for making decisions in the best long-term interests of the people and the tasks of which one is in charge.

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.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

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

Suggested Launch Activity

CENTRAL QUESTIONS: How can one individual’s responsibility influence a community? How can this affect society? How does individual responsibility play a part in a constitutional republic?

Write or post the word “responsibility” on the board. Discuss, as a class, what it means. Then, post the following definition:

To strive to know and to do what is best rather than what is most popular or expedient. To be trustworthy for making decisions in the best long-term interests of the people and tasks of which one is in charge.

Show students the photo on the following page. Ask: In this photo, what specific items or actions illustrate “responsibility”? Allow time for students to closely examine details of the photograph and to discuss it. (Note: They may note the gentleman reading at his desk, in a posture that indicates close focus on what he is doing; the large collection of books, noting the expense this represents at that time; the neatness with which the books and desk are arranged; the multiple items on the desk may indicate that he takes responsibility for bills to be paid, letters to which he should respond, etc.)

Explain: One place that represents Frederick Douglass’s responsibility is his home (now a National Historic Site in Washington, D.C.), and especially his library. See if students make the connection between the mention of Frederick Douglass and the photo they just examined.

Activity: Responsibility Maps

  1. Distribute a plain sheet of paper (8.5” x 11” or larger) to each student. Instruct them to fold it into fourths and then unfold, so that they have four sections to their paper. Have students do a “quick-draw” of each section, one at a time, as follows:
    • your home
    • your neighborhood
    • the school
    • another place where you regularly spend time

    All “quick-draws” should be simple line-drawings or maps, each completed in about one minute.

  2. Assign students to groups of 4 or 5. Distribute to each small group of students a set of colored pencils. Instruct them as follows:
    • On each of the four drawings, in one color, identify and label places that represent where other people (parents, babysitters when young, teachers, coaches, neighbors, etc.) have shown responsibility for them and their families.
    • On each of the four drawings, in a second color, identify and label places that represent where you, in some regular way, show responsibility toward other people and places.
    • On each of the four drawings, in a third color, identify and label places that represent where you have not yet, but could begin to demonstrate responsibility toward other people and places.
  3. Instruct students to describe and explain their “responsibility maps” to the other members of their small group. If time allows, invite them to find commonalities among the kinds of responsibility they share in various places, and the types of responsibility they do not yet have, but that they believe they are ready to take on.

Have students identify a person from whose responsibility they have benefitted. Instruct them to write either a handwritten note or a thank-you note to that person, and to turn in a copy of that note or email.

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

At the age of 20, Frederick Douglass stepped onto a northbound train and into freedom. A previous attempt two years earlier had landed him in jail….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. N.p.: Create Space Independent Platform, 2013.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Unabr. ed. N.p.: Dover, 1995.

National Park Service. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. http://www.nps.gov/frdo/

Virtue Across the Curriculum

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

The Gettysburg Address (1863)
How does Abraham Lincoln characterize the meaning of the Civil War? What responsibility does he place on the shoulders of Union soldiers and of all Americans? Why must they persevere in their fight?

I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman
Discuss or review nineteenth century growth and changes in the United States. What kind of changes and growth occurred? How is that conveyed in this poem? What sensory imagery does Whitman use? Name the sounds and their sources. How do these sounds convey responsibility? Describe the tone Whitman establishes through this imagery. How would you describe it? What class, or group, of people is depicted as adding to the “song”? Who does Whitman indicate is driving the growth, change, and “singing” in the United States during this time period? Describe how this poem conveys the relationship between individual freedom and responsibility.

The Jolly Flatboatmen, painting by George Caleb Bingham
If students have not yet studied nineteenth century United States history, have them research the context of this painting. Do a close-reading of the painting based on the basic elements of art. Then, discuss: What time of day is it in this scene? What, in the painting, tells the viewer what they were doing previously? What are they doing now? How does this relate to what they were previously doing? How does the painting depict responsibility? How does this poem depict the relationship between individuals and society? Describe how this painting conveys the relationship between individual freedom and responsibility.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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