American Portraits

The Sage of Concord: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Integrity

In this lesson, students will learn about the integrity of Ralph Waldo Emerson and how they can use integrity 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.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.


“A little integrity is better than any career.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Behavior,” The Conduct of Life.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 25, 1803 into a strict Unitarian family, Ralph Waldo Emerson was destined to follow obediently in his father’s footsteps and become a minister. Sadly, Emerson’s father died when the boy was only eight years old. This heartbreak was the beginning of a long line of premature deaths of those Emerson loved that would shape his later life. As a boy, Emerson attended the Boston Latin School, and then proceeded to attend Harvard University before finally finishing his academic career at Harvard School of Divinity. He was ordained a minister of the Second Church in Boston in 1829, fulfilling his family’s calling….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you maintain your integrity by making good choices?

Virtue Defined

Integrity is personal consistency in moral goodness.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the integrity of Ralph Waldo Emerson and how they can use integrity in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze Ralph Waldo Emerson’s decision to leave the ministry in order to maintain his integrity.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of integrity to their own lives.


Transcendentalism dominated the early nineteenth-century thinking of the American Renaissance. One of the main leaders of the movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson, believed that spirituality was connected to one’s conscience. His writing focused on internal transformations and individual equality. Through his work, Emerson guided small groups of writers through logic and empirical study.

Emerson believed that the “essence of self-reliance is the resistance to conformity.” He defined an authentic belief as one that is accepted by an individual without coercion from an outside force. This message epitomized integrity in action for Emerson. Moreover, faithfully following one’s conscience was an essential part of his definition of integrity. He wanted people to believe in themselves and not conform to societal norms that were not serving the larger good. He was a role model for his generation and beyond when he stated, “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.” Emerson’s message was for each individual to recognize their own inner truth (self-reliance) and to act on it with strength and confidence in order to find their wholeness (integrity).


  • Transcendentalism
  • Renaissance
  • Literary
  • Epitomized
  • Conscience
  • Obediently
  • Resign
  • Internal
  • Theological
  • Profoundly
  • Delineating

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 Ralph Waldo Emerson? Why was he significant?
  • What was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s purpose in leaving the ministry?
  • What actions did Ralph Waldo Emerson take to promote self-reliance and integrity?
  • How did Ralph Waldo Emerson’s integrity help to advance freedom?

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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