Citizenship and Character

Published February 1, 2004

The Founding Fathers don’t get much respect these days. In school, children are more likely to be taught that George Washington owned slaves than that he played an indispensable role in the creation of the Republic and in establishing its guiding principles.

In the popular TV sitcom “The West Wing,” Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, which he wrote out when he was about 16, are quoted only to mock and to use in decrying the first President as an insufferably prissy person. Thomas Jefferson fares even worse, with even the guides at Monticello spreading the calumny that he cohabited with a slave.

Such presentations strongly suggest to young people that the founders of the nation should not serve as their role models for today. Fortunately, there are organizations like the Bill of Rights Institute that present a more balanced view of American history and of the principled individuals responsible for shaping the nation. The Institute’s mission is “to educate high school students and teachers about our country’s Founding principles through programs that teach the words and ideas of the Founders; the liberties and freedoms guaranteed in our Founding documents; and how America’s Founding principles affect and shape a free society.”

The Institute offers a character education curriculum designed to increase student understanding of the fundamental civic values necessary for personal integrity and responsible citizenship. Titled “Citizenship and Character: Understanding America’s Civic Values,” the curriculum examines civic values from a dual perspective:

  • the values embedded in the founding documents of the United States; and,
  • the values demonstrated in the lives of the founders and other great Americans in history.

The curriculum focuses on the following civic values:

  • courage
  • industry
  • respect
  • responsibility
  • consideration
  • justice
  • perseverance
  • initiative
  • moderation
  • integrity

Lesson plans from the Institute also cover the values of compassion, honesty, honor, and humility, and also address what is meant by the “the pursuit of happiness.”

The “Citizenship and Character” curriculum features a 10-unit teacher’s guide. As well as an accompanying CD-ROM that lets students face a variety of simulations using the civic value they are studying, the teacher’s guide contains:

  • content-rich lesson plans;
  • focus questions that explore the civic value;
  • primary sources;
  • historical narratives with discussion questions;
  • a collection of quotes from the Founders.

In the lesson on courage, for example, Anne Hutchinson and John Minor Wisdom are held up as exemplifying the value of courage. In Puritan Massachusetts, Hutchinson challenged the established religion and government of her day. She lost her life as a result, but her courage in defending her beliefs helped lay the foundation for the religious liberty Americans now treasure. Some 300 years later, federal judge John Minor Wisdom challenged racist attitudes in the South and helped begin the process of desegregation, but not without personal cost.

George Washington and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. serve as exemplars for the virtue of moderation. Though the letter of the Constitution did not limit the term of the President, its spirit did, so Washington established a new precedent for the peaceful transfer of power by voluntarily relinquishing the Presidency after serving just two terms. As an African-American in the military, Davis moderated his anger at racist treatment and discrimination by focusing on achieving his goals. He became the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force.


For more information …

Information about the curriculum on “Citizenship and Character: Understanding America’s Civic Values” is available on the Web site of the Bill of Rights Institute at