American Portraits

The Angel of the Battlefield: Clara Barton and Responsibility

In this lesson, students will learn about how Clara Barton dedicated herself to the responsibility for caring for others throughout her life and how they can act responsibly in their own lives.

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.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

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


Born on December 25, 1821, in New Oxford, Massachusetts, Clara Barton grew up as a very quiet and introspective young girl. She was a very bright but timid young girl who learned quickly and proved to be academically talented. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Barton was already breaking boundaries. She worked successfully as an educator and also held a position as a clerk in the Patent Office—the first woman to do so. Of course, Barton experienced harassment from her male co-workers, but this challenged her to work even harder to prove them wrong. Due to the stress caused by her job and how she was treated, Barton’s health declined until she eventually became ill with malaria. When James Buchanan was elected president, he eliminated Barton’s position in the Patent Office, putting her out of work….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you help others by acting responsibly?

Virtue Defined

Responsibility is accountability to myself and others.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about how Clara Barton dedicated herself to the responsibility for caring for others throughout her life and how they can act responsibly in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze Clara Barton’s efforts to act responsibly during her life.
  • Students will apply their knowledge about acting responsibly to their own lives.
  • Students will determine ways in which they can act responsibly.


Clara Barton developed responsibility from a young age as she understood what it was like to feel helpless and mistreated. She faced constant teasing about a lisp she had when speaking, and lived in a tumultuous home with a mentally unbalanced mother.

Although timid and prone to illness, Barton proved herself to be a very capable young woman. At the age of ten, she helped nurse her severely injured brother, David, for over two years-even after doctors had given up hope. As Clara grew into womanhood, she was encouraged to become a teacher—a profession in which she excelled. Despite her quiet personality, she proved herself to be capable when teaching large classes of young men and women. Humanitarianism and responsibility were traits that the young Clara Barton would continue to develop throughout her life.


  • Humanitarianism
  • Prone
  • Timid
  • Harassment
  • Malaria
  • Introspective
  • Empathy
  • Determination
  • Red Cross
  • Bureaucracy

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Clara Barton? Why was her life significant?
  • What was Clara Barton’s purpose?
  • How did Clara Barton act responsibly in her life?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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