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The Responsibilities of Frederick Douglass

45 min

How can one individual’s responsibility influence a community? How can this affect society? How does individual responsibility play a part in a constitutional republic?

Understand the virtue of responsibility as represented in the life of Frederick Douglass.

Blank 8.5×11 piece of paper for each student 

Educator Resources: Responsibilities of Frederick Douglass Answer Key 

Student handouts & supplies 

  • Responsibility: Frederick Douglass and Responsibility,  
  • Discussion Guide: The Responsibilities of Frederick Douglass, 
  •  Virtue in Action: The Responsibilities of Frederick Douglass,  
  • Responsibility Worksheet;  
  • Writing implement, colored pencils 

  • Civic virtue
  • Responsibility

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. N.p.: Create Space Independent Platform, 2013.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Unabr. ed. N.p.: Dover, 1995.

National Park Service. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. http://www.nps.gov/frdo/

Write or post the word responsibility on the board. As a class, discuss what it means and suggest some examples. Then, post the following definition: 

Responsibility: To strive to know and to do what is best rather than what is most popular or expedient. A responsible person is trustworthy for making decisions in the best long-term interests of people and the best outcomes for the work to be done. 

Show students the photo on the following page. Ask: In this photo, what specific items or actions illustrate responsibility? Allow time for students to closely examine details of the photograph and to discuss it. (Note: They may observe the gentleman reading at his desk, in a posture that indicates close focus on what he is doing; the large collection of books, noting the expense this represents at that time; the neatness with which the books and desk are arranged; the multiple items on the desk may indicate that he takes responsibility for bills to be paid, letters to which he should respond, etc.) 

Explain: One place that represents Frederick Douglass’s responsibility is his home (now a National Historic Site in Washington, D.C.), and especially his library. See if students make the connection between the mention of Frederick Douglass and the photo they just examined. 

Activity: Responsibility Maps 

  1. 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. 

  1. Assign students to groups of 4 or 5. Distribute to each small group of students a set of colored pencils (at least three different colors). Instruct them as follows: 
  • On each of the four drawings, in one color, 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. 
  • 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. 
  1. Instruct students to describe and explain their responsibility maps to the other members of their small group. If time allows, invite them to find commonalities among the kinds of responsibility they share in various places, and the types of responsibility they do not yet have, but that they believe they are ready to take on. 

Write one sentence explaining how the terms civic virtue and responsibility are connected.

Have students identify a person from whose responsibility they have benefitted. Instruct them to write either a handwritten note or an email thanking that person, and to turn in a copy of that note or email.

Look around your street, your neighborhood, your school, and your community. Is there anything you can identify that needs improving? Define the problem, and then think about your responsibility as a citizen to take action to improve it. Issues to think through:  

  • Our constitutional system assumes that most issues are better solved by citizens working together voluntarily than through the use of government force. 
  • Before automatically developing a plan to petition government, consider how you and others can use words and actions to correct the problem or resolve the situation.  
  • If the issue requires government intervention,  determine which level of government (local, state, or national) has the power to address it.
  • In planning your approach, think about how any additional power that you and your fellow citizens would like to grant to government to solve a specific problem may eventually be used by officials who do not share your goals.