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Frederick Douglass and Responsibility

60 min

Essential Question

  • How can one individual’s responsibility influence a community?  

Guiding Questions

  • What happens when one acts irresponsibly and “lets down” another?  
  • Is there any connection between being responsible and being trusted? Between being responsible and being respected? 

Learning Objectives

  • Students will discuss the benefits of responsibility in civil society by analyzing the story of Frederick Douglass.   
  • Students will reflect on ways that they can be responsible for themselves and for their communities.

Student Resources

Teacher Resources

  • Analysis Questions 
  • Virtue in Action  
  • Journal Activity
  • Sources for Further Reading  

  • Responsibility: Acting on good judgment about what is right or wrong even when it is not popular. Individuals must take care of themselves, their families, and their fellow citizens/others in civil society and a republic and be vigilant to preserve their own liberty and the liberty of others. 
  • Gag rule: A regulation or directive that prohibits public discussion of a particular matter. 


  • The following lesson introduces students to the civic virtue of responsibility. Acting responsibly for oneself and others is essential to the health of one’s community. Students will learn that responsibility is striving to know and do what is best, rather than what is most popular or expedient.  
  • Students will engage with the story of Frederick Douglass as they consider the question: How can one individual’s responsibility influence a community?   
  • The main activity of this lesson requires students to analyze the story and actions of Frederick Douglass. Students may work individually, in pairs, or in small groups as best fits your classroom. The analysis questions provided can be used to help students comprehend and think critically about the content. As the teacher, you can decide which questions best fit your students’ needs and time restraints.   
  • Lastly, the lesson includes sources used in this lesson for further reading and suggestions for cross-curricular connections. 


  • Scaffolding Note: You may use this activity to prepare your students and introduce the vocabulary and ideas discussed in this lesson.   
  • Write or post the word “responsibility” on the board. Discuss, as a class, what it means. Then, post the following definition: To strive to know and to do what is best rather than what is most popular or expedient. To be trustworthy for making decisions in the best long-term interests of the people and tasks of which one is in charge.  
  • Compare this definition with student definitions. Would they change or add anything? 
  • Transition: In the following activity, we will be thinking about individual responsibility and how that can translate as being responsible to the community.   


  • Guide students in making their own responsibility maps.
  • Distribute a plain sheet of paper (8.5” x 11” or larger) to each student. Instruct them to fold it into fourths and then unfold, so that they have four sections to their paper. Have students do a “quick-draw” of each section, one at a time, as follows:  
    • Your home  
    • Your neighborhood  
    • The school  
    • Another place where you regularly spend time  
  • All “quick-draws” should be simple line-drawings or maps, each completed in about one minute.   
  • On each of the four drawings, in one color, have students identify and label places that represent where other people (parents, babysitters when young, teachers, coaches, neighbors, etc.) have shown responsibility for them and their families.  
  • On each of the four drawings, in a second color, identify and label places that represent where you, in some regular way, show responsibility toward other people and places.  
  • Instruct students to describe and explain their “responsibility maps” to a shoulder partner or members of their small group. If time allows, invite them to find commonalities among the kinds of responsibility they share in various places.


  • Transition to the Frederick Douglass and Responsibility Narrative. Students will learn and analyze the story of Frederick Douglass and how he acted responsibly in his decisions.   
  • Scaffolding Note: You may want to use the Talk, Read, Talk, Write (TRTW) strategy with your students. TRTW is an engaging classroom strategy to help students access content. Students generally read an academic text with structured opportunities to talk and write about content and their understanding of it. For more specific information, use these directions. Additional reading strategies are provided for other options that may meet your students’ needs. 
  • Essential Vocabulary  
    • Responsibility: Acting on good judgment about what is right or wrong even when it is not popular. Individuals must take care of themselves, their families, and their fellow citizens/others in civil society and a republic and be vigilant to preserve their own liberty and the liberty of others. 
    • Gag rule: A regulation or directive that prohibits public discussion of a particular matter. 
  • Transition to the analysis questions. Have students work individually, with partners, or as a whole class to answer the questions. 
  • Scaffolding Note: If there are questions that are not necessary to your students’ learning or time restraints, then you can remove those questions.
  • Analysis Questions 
    • Historically, why had enslaved people been prevented from learning to read? 
    • What important event took place when Douglass was 8 years old? 
    • What were some of the more inventive ways Douglass worked to become a better reader? Would some of these options have been available to him if he had been less resourceful, or less humble? What principles did he learn from his reading and how did they shape his responsibility for achieving his freedom? Explain. 
    • Douglass failed in his 1836 attempt to escape. Enslaved people were not permitted to leave their masters without permission, and fugitive slaves could be (and in some places were legally required to be) returned to their masters. In other words, Douglass’s attempt to escape was against the law. But was it virtuous? Explain. 
    • Douglass fought back against the slavebreaker, Edward Covey. What effect did this have on Douglass’s views of his enslavement and freedom?  
    • Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.” How does this quotation help you understand the virtue of responsibility? 
    • The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution banned slavery, yet Douglass did not consider his work finished. How did Douglass continue to show responsibility to his fellow man throughout the rest of this life? 
    • George Bernard Shaw, a famous playwright and intellectual, said, “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” Why does liberty require responsibility? Do you think Douglas would agree? Why or why not? Do you agree? Why or why not?” 
    • Slavery was a terrible injustice that ended in the U.S. after people worked for over a century. What is the responsibility of citizens in a constitutional republic to protect others’ rights? 
    • Given your responses to the previous two questions, what is the relationship between civic virtue among citizens and the effective running of a republic? 
    • For what in your life are you responsible? For what will you be responsible in five years? 
    • How do — and will — you act responsibly in your daily life? 

Assess & Reflect

Virtue in Action  

  • Have students return to their responsibility maps. On each of the four drawings, in a third color, identify and label places that represent where you have not yet, but could begin, to demonstrate responsibility toward other people and places. 
  • Have students identify a person from whose responsibility they benefited from. Encourage them to look at their maps to see how others such as parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches, etc., affected them. Instruct them to write either and deliver a handwritten note or an email to that person, thanking them for the ways in which they affected their life. 


Responsibility Journal Activity  

  • Frederick Douglass stated “Once one learns to read, one is forever free.” Have students self-reflect and answer the following questions in their journal: 
    • Would he have said that simply being free without action is sufficient? What greater responsibility comes with learning? What does your responsibility have to do with your education? How will you live out that responsibility?


Sources & Further Reading  

  • Explore the following list for additional sources and further reading on Frederick Douglass.  
    • Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Platform, 2013.  
    • Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.   
    • Buccola, Nicholas. The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty. New York: New York University Press, 2012.   
    • Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.   
    • Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written By Himself. Boston: Bedford, 2016. Unabr. ed. N.p.: Dover, 1995.  
    • Myers, Peter C. Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.   
    • National Park Service. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.  

Virtue Across the Curriculum  

  • Below are corresponding literature suggestions to help you teach about responsibility across the curriculum. Sample prompts are provided for the key corresponding works. For the other suggested works, or others that are already part of your curriculum, create your own similar prompts.  
    • The Gettysburg Address (1863)  
      • How does Abraham Lincoln characterize the meaning of the Civil War? What responsibility does he place on the shoulders of Union soldiers and of all Americans? Why must they persevere in their fight?  
    • I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman  
      • Discuss or review 19th century growth and changes in the United States. What kind of changes and growth occurred? How is that conveyed in this poem? Who does Whitman indicate is driving the growth, change, and “singing” in the United States during this time period? Describe how this poem conveys the relationship between individual freedom and responsibility.  


Student Handouts

Related Resources