American Portraits

Eli Whitney: Diligent Pioneer of Modern Industry

In this lesson, students will learn about how Eli Whitney diligently worked as the inventor of the cotton gin and interchangeable parts. Through his example, students will learn how being diligent can help them achieve their own purpose.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

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

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

Narrative

During Eli Whitney’s voyage south to become a tutor, he became friends with Caty Greene, the widow of Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene. This new acquaintance proved fortuitous when the promised tutoring position didn’t work out. Mrs. Greene invited Whitney to stay as a guest at her plantation in Georgia. He appreciated her hospitality and helped out whenever he could. He was especially successful in repairing equipment around the farm and fashioning new devices to make tasks easier….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How might your diligent actions help others?

Virtue Defined

Diligence is intrinsic energy for completing good work.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about how Eli Whitney diligently worked as the inventor of the cotton gin and interchangeable parts. Through his example, students will learn how being diligent can help them achieve their own purpose.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze the diligent actions of Eli Whitney.
  • Students will apply their knowledge to act diligently in their own lives.
  • Students will understand ways in which they can be diligent.

Background

Eli Whitney was one of the fathers of modern American industry. He was born into a family of modest means in Westborough, Massachusetts in 1765. Eli Whitney grew up less than forty miles from the location of the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord, and the ensuing Revolutionary War would provide his introduction to the world of industry.

While only fourteen years old, he convinced his father to allow him to open a nail forge to sell nails to the surrounding community. Young Eli had heard local farmers complain about how it was impossible to buy nails, as all the local blacksmiths were occupied with military work for colonial patriots. While nails may not seem like a very exciting item, for eighteenth-century farmers they were a necessity. Eli’s vision was correct, and the forge was a tremendous success and provided financial help for the family.

Eli aspired to attend college, a dream that seemed out of reach because his family’s lack of finances would make paying tuition a hardship. In addition, he had not attended a college preparatory school, so even if the finances could be arranged, passing the entrance exam would be extremely difficult. Eli Whitney did not let any of this stop him from achieving his goal. Despite his lack of formal education, he was able to obtain employment as a schoolmaster. He used the income from that position to attend Leicester Academy in the summer to prepare him for the challenging entrance exam to Yale College.

He managed to pass the entrance exam and became a Yale student at the age of twenty-three. Whitney diligently completed his studies at Yale over the next three years. He earned money while a student by repairing various pieces of equipment on campus. Whitney caught the eye of college president Ezra Stiles. Upon graduation, Stiles arranged a position for Eli working as a tutor on a southern plantation. He was hesitant to move so far away from home, but the pay was significant.

Vocabulary

  • Modest
  • Ensuing
  • Forge
  • Tuition
  • Preparatory
  • Fortuitous
  • Lamented
  • Sustainable
  • Depleted
  • Crude
  • Patent
  • Endorsements
  • Annulled
  • Muskets
  • Interchangeable parts

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

Visit Their Website

Questions

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 Eli Whitney? Why was his life significant?
  • What was Whitney’s purpose?
  • What diligent actions did Eli Whitney take in order to be successful?

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

  • Alter, Judy. Eli Whitney. New York: F. Watts, 1990.
  • “Arms Production at the Whitney Armory.” Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop. Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, Web. 06 June 2015.
  • Gilbert, Miriam. Eli Whitney Master Craftsman. New York: Abingdon, 1956.
  • “Eli Whitney: The Inventor.” Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop. Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, Web. 06 June 2015.
  • Jefferson, Thomas. “Founders Online: From Thomas Jefferson to Eli Whitney, 16 November 1793.” Letter. 16 Nov. 1793. From Thomas Jefferson to Eli Whitney, 16 November 1793. National Archives, n.d. Web. 06 June 2015.
  • Whitney, Eli. “Letter from Eli Whitney, Jr. to His Father regarding His Invention of the Cotton Gin, 11 September 1793.” Letter. 11 Sept. 1793. Teaching U.S. History in South Carolina. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Web. 06 June 2015.
  • Whitney, Eli. “Petition Requesting Renewal of the Patent on the Cotton Gin.” Letter to Congress of the United States. 16 Apr. 1812. National Archives of the United States. National Archives of the United States. Web. 06 June 2015.
  • Wolcott, Oliver, Jr. “Advocacy for Money Advance to Whitney.” Letter to Samuel Dexter. 13 Jan. 1801. Papers of the War Department 1784-1804. Center for History and New Media. Web. 06 June 2015.
  • “Yale Finding Aid Database: Guide to the Eli Whitney Papers.” Yale Finding Aid Database: Guide to the Eli Whitney Papers. Yale University Library, Web. 06 June 2015.

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Close