American Portraits

The Unshakeable Witness: Whittaker Chambers and Integrity

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and actions of Whittaker Chambers. They will explore how his actions embodied the principle of integrity. Through his example, they will learn how they can live with integrity 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.

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.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Narrative

Whittaker Chambers was born in 1901 to a middle-class family and grew up primarily in New York. After graduating from high school in 1919, Chambers worked various odd jobs before finally deciding to attend Williams College. He was only there a very short time before transferring to Columbia University. Chambers thrived in the intellectual atmosphere of Columbia, where he began to write extensively….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Whittaker Chambers’ dedication to integrity inspire you to act with more integrity in your own life?

Virtue Defined

Integrity is personal consistency in moral goodness.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and actions of Whittaker Chambers. They will explore how his actions embodied the principle of integrity. Through his example, they will learn how they can live with integrity in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Whittaker Chambers’ actions throughout his life.
  • Students will understand how acting with integrity can affect their purpose and identity.
  • Students will apply this knowledge to the pursuit of integrity in their own lives.

Background

Communism emerged as a philosophy in the mid-nineteenth century with the publication of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx in 1848. Its popularity grew rapidly with the massive cultural and political shifts in Europe that occurred throughout the century. During the Russian Revolution in 1917, the communist philosophy found a home. Seeking to spread its ideology and undermine potential threats, the Soviet Union established a massive espionage network. In the 1920s and 1930s, this network infiltrated and influenced multiple members of the intellectual elite in New York and Washington D.C.

Two members of this circle were Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. In the aftermath of the Second World War, tensions began building between the Soviet Union and the United States. As communists began to be viewed as a credible threat to the security of the nation, government officials who associated with the Communist Party began to be persecuted. One of these men was Alger Hiss. His accuser was Whittaker Chambers.

Vocabulary

  • Communist
  • Philosophy
  • Espionage
  • Ideology
  • Atmosphere
  • Communist Party
  • Communist Manifesto
  • Throes
  • Regime
  • Inevitability
  • Conviction
  • Mentality
  • Testify
  • Vehemently
  • Perjury
  • Reputation
  • Implicate

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.

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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

  • What was Whittaker Chambers’ testimony during the Alger Hiss trial?
  • How are Whittaker Chambers’ actions consistent with the virtue of integrity?

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

  • 21st Century Education. “Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers Face to Face in Spy Probe.” YouTube. Accessed May 14, 2015.
  • Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. New York: Random House, 1952.
  • Tanenhaus, Sam. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. New York: Modern Library, 1998.

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