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It is unusual for so many famous people to have lived in a particular house. The combination of a beautiful structure and proximity to the White House made Decatur House a plum in the housing market of Washington, D.C. As students work through the following activities, have them keep in mind the importance that people of the 18th and 19th centuries placed on "proper" behavior in "proper" settings. Stress again the importance of social events in advancing a political or military career.

Activity 1: What Makes a Hero?
Explain to students that the dictionary defines a hero as a person who is noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his life. Stephen Decatur was considered a hero in his own time. Break the class into small groups to discuss the following questions.

  1. Which deeds of Decatur characterized him as a hero?
  2. What are some characteristics of people who become heroes? What characteristics did Decatur share with other people who have become heroes?
  3. What benefits do heroes receive from their status?
  4. Why do societies seem to need heroes?

Next, ask students to make a list of four or five present-day heroes who possess the characteristics the students have defined. Finally, hold a full class discussion to determine if there is general agreement as to appropriate answers to the questions among the class. What similarities and differences are there between Decatur and the contemporary heroes they identified? Have students use their U.S. history textbooks to determine other heroes of the 19th century and compare the deeds of those persons with Decatur's.

You might wish to expand the activity by having students conduct research on heroes in their own communities. What kinds of deeds made him or her a hero? Are there any places still standing in the community today that are associated with him or her? Have they been commemorated or memorialized in the community in some other way? How?

Activity 2: Conflict Resolution
Explain to students that conflict is a struggle between opposing forces. It can apply both to large-scale struggles such as battles or to a simple struggle within oneself. To resolve a conflict means to stop it, peacefully as by a friendly handshake and agreement to quarrel no more; by an all out battle between the opposing forces in which one becomes a victor; or by a decision by a judge or other arbiter who supports one side of the argument or forces both opponents to accept a compromise.

Have students use Readings 2 and 3 to review the conflict and the events that led up to the fateful duel between Stephen Decatur and James Barron. Then divide the class into two groups to hold a debate, with one side defending the actions of Decatur and the other side defending the actions of Barron. After the students are in groups, read them the following assignment:

Considering your knowledge of the Decatur/Barron feud, set up an oral argument based on statements from Reading 2 and Reading 3 that would defend your individual's position. Using your understanding of life in the 19th century, defend your individual's right to duel his opponent even though dueling was illegal and they were both well known and influential citizens.

Have students discuss their opinions and then choose a spokesperson to represent their group. Give each spokesperson five minutes to present their group's arguments to the class. Then allow 10 minutes for each spokesperson to consult with his group before presenting a rebuttal. The rebuttals should take three minutes and be given in the same order as the original presentations. Spokespersons should also be allowed two minutes for closing statements. If you hold a vote on who won the debate, be certain students consider the quality of preparation and presentation rather than their opinion on which man held "correct" views. Following the debate, have a full class discussion on the following issues:

  1. Why did these two influential and powerful men find it necessary to risk their lives over a battle of honor?
  2. Was the duel the appropriate ending to this conflict? In what other ways might the conflict have been resolved?
  3. Do we see conflicts of this type in our society today? How are such conflicts resolved? Which methods are appropriate mechanisms for conflict resolution? Can you think of better mechanisms?

Activity 3: Access to Power
In today's world knowing the right people still provides the best access, and the party list of many Washington social events still acts as an indicator of whose career is moving forward, and who is out of favor. Even Americans who do not aspire to jobs in the upper echelons use social and personal contact as a way to find jobs or to influence people with political power to promote a cause they care deeply about. Tell students to keep these facts in mind as they complete this activity.

Ask students to choose a current issue or proposal that they would like to express an opinion about to the governor of their state. As an alternative, have them pretend that their governor is considering a budget that would dramatically reduce funding for local schools. Ask students to list various means of expressing support or disapproval of the issue or proposal, and of influencing the ultimate decision (petition, letter, fax, E-mail, telephone, the news media). Have students choose one of these means and either carry it out or write a description of why that particular means would be helpful in getting their opinion across to their legislator and the governor.

Next, have students consider whether a personal visit with the governor might be more effective. How would they go about getting an appointment with him or her? How would they present their concern in a typical 15-minute visit? What homework would they have to do to make sure they presented a good argument for their cause? Then have them suggest reasons why being located right next to the Governor's mansion might help them get the governor's attention. Discuss responses.

Ask students to name some political positions at the local level such as the school board chairman, mayor, or county supervisor. Would it be easier to arrange a personal visit with such individuals? Why? Do students think that their individual support or disapproval, or that of their parents, is likely to have more of an impact at the local or state level? Why?

 

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