Heroes and Villains

Thomas Jefferson and the Rewards of Humility

A look at the virtue of humility, which is defined as remembering that one’s ignorance is far greater than one’s knowledge. Readily giving praise to those who earn it. This virtue is explored through the life of Thomas Jefferson.

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

Part I: Humility, Glory, and Defeat

CENTRAL QUESTIONS: How does humility relate to moments of glory? How does it affect moments of defeat?

If you have photos of students from your schools’ arts or athletic events, share them with students, preferably via a slideshow so that students are viewing the images together. Tailor the following questions to the interests and extracurricular activities of students in your class, and lead a discussion based on them.

  • What is happening at this moment in this game/play/scene/ performance?
  • Describe the moments that led up to it.
  • Who made the shot/goal/touchdown? Who assisted?
  • Considering all the moments that led up to that scoring moment, who played a quieter part and did not/does not generally receive recognition for it?

If the image involves an “agony of defeat” or injury moment:

  • What is happening at this moment?
  • Do you recall the responses of the people who were there? Describe what you saw. Did anyone witness a moment of particularly good sportsmanship/kindness/generosity?
  • Why do people have a positive reaction when they see good sportsmanship or generosity on athletic fields or in performance venues?

Post or project the following definition of humility: Remembering that one’s ignorance is far greater than one’s knowledge. Readily giving praise to those who earn it. Ask students how the scenes they just discussed reflect that definition.

Post or project the following questions and have students write their responses before discussing as a group.

  • How does humility play a part in these kinds of moments?
  • How does it relate to moments of glory in general?
  • How does it affect moments of defeat?


Part II: Close-Reading Thomas Jefferson

Distribute to students the “Close-Reading Thomas Jefferson” handout. You may wish to also project a large version of the photograph for students to see while you discuss it.

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

A traveler, after stopping for the night at a Virginia inn, struck up a conversation with “a plainly-dressed and unassuming” stranger. The stranger “introduced one subject after another into the conversation” and demonstrated himself to be “perfectly acquainted with each.”…

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

Adams, Henry. History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 1891-96; New York: Library of America, 1986.

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Time, 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948-81.

Randall, Henry S. The Life of Thomas Jefferson, 3 vols. New York: Derby and Jackson, 1858.

Randolph, Sarah N. The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1871.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Below are corresponding literature and film 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.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley and The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
After reviewing sonnet form and analyzing the language in each, have students discuss and write about themes they find in both. Compare and contrast themes of leadership and humility, in particular. Ask students to address how humility affects a person’s style of leadership, and what societal values this reflects.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
In what ways is Jurassic Park a cautionary tale about the need for humility? In what ways do Jurassic Park scientists and game wardens fail to act with humility? Discuss the extent to which various characters show humility and how their faithfulness to this virtue is reflected in their various fates. Also a 1993 film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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