American Portraits

John Deere: From Purpose to Prosperity

In this lesson, students will learn about how John Deere worked with purpose to invent a new plow that made farm work much more efficient. They will use this example to be purposeful in their own lives.

Founding Principles

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.


During the first half of the nineteenth century, the fertile expanse of the western prairies drew thousands of settlers to the plains of the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. One of those lured by the possibility of economic prosperity was John Deere, who had heard a friend’s stories of the American West. Deere was skilled as a blacksmith and decided to move west to meet the growing demand for his trade. In 1836, he left his pregnant wife and four children in Vermont and made his way to Grand Detour. He immediately set up a smithy, and within a year his family joined him….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can being purposeful help you to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for yourself and others?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about how John Deere worked with purpose to invent a new plow that made farm work much more efficient. They will use this example to be purposeful in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze John Deere’s purposeful behavior in developing a more efficient plow.
  • Students will evaluate the value in acting with purpose.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of purpose to their own lives.


John Deere was born in Vermont in 1804. When Deere was only four years old, his father, William, left the family to claim an inheritance in England. William never returned, presumed to have perished at sea. Thus, Deere only received a basic education as he needed to work from a young age.

At the age of 17, he apprenticed himself to a blacksmith. In 1836, as the economy stagnated in Vermont, Deere moved to Illinois. There, in Grand Detour, he developed an idea for a self-cleaning plow that would revolutionize agriculture in the Midwest.


  • Blacksmith
  • Fertile
  • Prairies
  • Oxen
  • Indomitable
  • Prosperity
  • Skeptical
  • Recruited
  • Foundry
  • Franchise
  • Smithy

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the “Compelling Question” 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

  • What was Deere’s purpose in developing the self-polishing plow?
  • Why was Deere’s development of the self-polishing plow significant?
  • John Deere had many different identities in his life. What identities or roles do you have? Which is most significant to you? Why? Which is most significant to others? Why?

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

  • Broehl, Wayne G., Jr. John Deere’s Company: A History of Deere and Company and Its Times. New York: Doubleday. 1984.
  • Dahlstorm, Neil and Jeremy Dahlstrom. The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John and Charles Deere. Dekalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005.
  • Stillwell, Lewis D. Migration from Vermont. Vermont Historical Society, 1948.
  • “The Story of John Deere.” John Deere & Co. 2002.

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