Skip to Main Content

American Portraits in Civic Virtue

American Portraits in Civic Virtue

Guiding Questions: What civic virtues do Americans value? How does the practice of civic virtues promote a healthy civil society?

  • I can explain historical examples of individuals who exhibited Civic Virtues through their words and actions.

“Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.” —Samuel Adams

Essential Vocabulary

abolition the ending of a system
abolitionist anti-slavery; one who opposes slavery
adversary opponent
Anti-Federalists a group who opposed the ratification of the Constitution
bipartisan having support from and cooperation by both parties
commission appointment
Emancipation Proclamation a declaration released by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War that legally freed all slaves in the South
integrated combined to make a whole; for example, schools that allowed Blacks and whites to be together
lynched to put to death by a mob without legal proceedings
natural rights universal rights that all humans hold regardless of customs, laws, or societies and given to them by God or by nature
precedent an earlier law or court decision to be considered when making future decisions
Thirteenth Amendment the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery in the United States
Underground Railroad a network of individuals who helped enslaved people escape to the North and Canada


Directions: American history is filled with individuals who made a difference for their society by practicing civic virtues. Read the brief descriptions below of some of these dramatic stories, taking notes on the main issue, action, or outcome the person engaged in. Use your notes to complete your organizer. James Madison has been completed for you as an example.

1. Founder James Madison had opposed a Bill of Rights (first ten Amendments to the Constitution) during the debate over the Constitution because he thought it unnecessary. However, he became its champion in the First Congress in 1789 because he realized it would help win greater support for the new government among the Anti-Federalists, a group who opposed the ratification of the Constitution, and would build greater unity in the new republic.
2. Elizabeth Eckford was a black high school student who was a member of the Little Rock Nine who wanted to attend an integrated high school—one that allowed Blacks and whites to be together—in 1957. So that she could receive an education, she walked outside of the school without protection through hostile crowds who screamed racial insults at her and intimidated her
3. After Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the go ahead for the invasion of France to proceed on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), he sat down and composed a message in case the invasion failed. It read, “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
4. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player in the major leagues. He knew that he would endure racial insults from fans and opposing teams for crossing the “color barrier.” He promised Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey that he would have “the guts not to fight back.” Over a long baseball season of 154 games in different cities, Robinson proved his superstar talent in the game and that he could “bear indignities and humiliations without complaint.”

5. In the 1830s, Southern members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to establish a “gag rule” that prevented consideration and discussion of abolitionist, or anti-slavery, petitions on the House floor. Massachusetts representative and former president John Quincy Adams continued to introduce anti-slavery petitions because he thought slavery was a violation of natural rights, or those that belong to humans by nature and can only be justly abridged through due process. Examples are life, liberty, and property. He also fought for the right of all Americans to petition their government and exercise their right to freedom of speech.
6. After her own escape from enslavement in 1849, Harriet Tubman become a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, a network of individuals who helped enslaved people escape to the North and Canada. However, Tubman did more than wait for them to come to her. Over the next decade, she made an estimated 12 missions to the South and personally rescued 70 people fleeing from slavery to freedom.
7. In 1939, General George C. Marshall was selected army chief of staff by President Franklin Roosevelt. Marshall was known for his calm and rational demeanor, his upright character, and his sense of duty. During World War II, he won great respect by building the U.S. Army, formulating grand strategy, and settling disagreements among his generals. He was disappointed when Dwight Eisenhower was chosen to lead the D-Day invasion but silently accepted the president’s decision and did his duty.
8. In 1892, a local conflict among competing grocery stores led to violence and the arrest of three Black men who were taken from jail and lynched, or put to death by a mob without legal proceedings. Black journalist Ida B. Wells was horrified by the killings and wrote several pamphlets exposing the great injustices. She also went to Washington, D.C., to lobby, or work to influence politics, for an anti-lynching law. She soon helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to fight for justice and equality.
9. On April 9, 1865, Union general Ulysses S. Grant met with Confederate commander Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House to accept Lee’s surrender in the American Civil War. Although the Union had won, Grant treated his defeated adversary, or opponent, with respect. After the brief ceremony, Grant agreed that Confederate soldiers could keep their horses and sidearms. The two shook hands, and Grant raised his hat in salute as Lee and his men rode off. Grant even ordered his men not to celebrate in front of the defeated enemy, in an effort to help the two sides reconcile after the bloody war.

10. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a Cold War and nuclear arms race. American politicians decided to take a strong stand against Soviet global expansion and developed “containment”—a policy meant to keeping the Soviet Union from gaining control of additional countries. Democratic president Harry Truman and Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Arthur Vandenberg overcame their party differences to work together in creating a bipartisan (having support from and cooperation by both parties) foreign policy. Their collaboration resulted in getting the Marshall Plan, NATO, and other Cold War policies through Congress.
11. At the end of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington surrendered his military commission, or appointment, back to Congress and retired to his home, Mount Vernon. This action established the precedent, an earlier law or court decision to be considered when making future decisions, that the power of the civilian government was superior to that of the military. Because his fellow citizens trusted him with power, Washington returned to public service as the nation’s first president. He set another precedent when he chose not to run again for the presidency after two terms in office, which every president until Franklin D. Roosevelt followed. The two-term limit later became part of the U.S. Constitution.
12. Charles Chibitty was a Comanche from Medicine Park, Oklahoma, who was forbidden from speaking his native language at an Indian School growing up. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and became one of the Native American “codetalkers” during World War II. Many of these courageous soldiers fought on the front lines, sending word of enemy positions and tactical situations in their native languages, which could not be understood by the Japanese and German armed forces. This critical information helped commanders to shape their decisions. Chibitty landed on Utah Beach, helped liberate Paris from Nazi occupation, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He and other codetalkers later received numerous awards for their bravery and unique contribution to the war effort.

Charles Chibitty was a Comanche who served in World War II as a “codetalker.”

13. President Abraham Lincoln had spoken out against slavery most of his adult life. While he maintained that the federal government had limited legal power over slavery where it currently existed, Lincoln believed the government had the power to prevent slavery’s expansion into new territories. He also thought that permanent abolition, or the ending of a system, of slavery would require a constitutional amendment. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln used his presidential war powers to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a declaration released by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War that legally freed all slaves in the South. While defending his more limited actions against slavery in the Confederacy as president during the Civil War, he made an explicit distinction between what he considered his “official duty” and his “personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” He supported the Thirteenth Amendment, the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery in the United States, before he was assassinated in April 1865.


Questions for Discussion

  1. Explain the meaning of this quote by Samuel Adams in your own words.
  2. Why do you think it is important for a self-governing people to practice civic virtues/be virtuous?

Additional Activities