American Portraits

Stephen Decatur and Purpose

In this lesson, students will learn about Stephen Decatur and his sense of purpose that drove him to successfully complete the daring raid on the U.S.S. Philadelphia. They will explore how purpose can help advance freedom and work to discover purpose 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.


Stephen Decatur was born in 1779 to a naval family in the midst of the American Revolution. His father, Stephen Decatur Sr., served with the fledgling United States Navy during the Revolutionary War and later became a merchant captain. Stephen was introduced to the sea from an early age. As a young boy, he began to develop an ailment which his father hoped a voyage would cure. Whether it was the sea air or the sense of adventure, Decatur Jr. was cured, and his love of the ocean was born….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Stephen Decatur’s dedication to his purpose inspire you to follow your purpose?

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 Stephen Decatur and his sense of purpose that drove him to complete the daring raid on the U.S.S. Philadelphia successfully. They will explore how purpose can help advance freedom and work to discover purpose in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze Stephen Decatur’s performance during the raid on the U.S.S. Philadelphia.
  • Students will understand how they can pursue their purpose in their own lives
  • Students will apply this knowledge to discover their own purpose.


The United States officially became a nation at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783. However, the country soon learned that being a nation on paper meant little in the violent world of international politics. The young republic would soon need to prove to the rest of the world that it could defend itself. The United States had trade interests all over the world that it was now responsible for defending. The continent of Europe became embroiled in war following the French Revolution in 1789. By 1793, nearly every nation in Europe was at war, including two of the United States’ largest trading partners, Great Britain and France.

Officially neutral, the United States attempted to continue normal trade relations with Great Britain and France. However, both European nations attempted to prevent the other from trading with the United States. The new country began building a navy to protect its trade.

The first United States Navy consisted of six large frigates. One of its first major conflicts was with the Barbary States in North Africa. This association of independent cities subsisted on piracy, ransoms, and the bribes that major nations would pay to ensure safe passage of their ships.

When United States commercial ships and sailors began to be seized by the Barbary Pirates, the Navy was dispatched to protect citizens and their property. One of the members of this expedition was a young Stephen Decatur.


  • Fledgling
  • Commission
  • Midshipman
  • Frigate
  • Quasi Wars
  • Privateers
  • Barbary States
  • Skirmish
  • Beleaguered
  • Resolute

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

  • What was Stephen Decatur’s role in the First Barbary War?
  • Why was it so critical to remove the Philadelphia from Tripoli Harbor?
  • What do Stephen Decatur’s actions say about his identity?

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

  • Guttridge, Leonard F. Our Country, Right or Wrong: The Life of Stephen Decatur, the U.S. Navy’s Most Illustrious Commander. New York: Forge, 2007.
  • Toll, Ian W. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2006.

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