Purest Sons—Deep Dive Read

Deep Dive Read: “Purest Sons”

(30-50 minutes for reading and discussion; 50-80 minutes with extensions)

“Deep Dive Read” activities allow students to closely read powerful texts mentioned in the Basic Plan and / or alluded to in the module video.


This activity asks students to discuss the institution of slavery. Please be sure to inform students of this content prior to viewing and remind students of the respect and rigor required to study this history. This is hard history, but it is necessary history to study. Please read the entire lesson plan and accompanying documents when determining appropriate framing, scaffolds, and activities within your classroom.


  • Analyze an author’s use of rhetorical devices (e.g. juxtaposition, rhetorical questioning, hyperbole) and its impact on the argument being made.
  • Analyze an author’s word choice and its impact on the narrative being told.
  • Apply background knowledge from the Self-Evident episode, “The Purest Sons of Liberty” to understand the purposes of a text written for a specific perspective and written in a specific context.


1. Frame the close read: (potential script)

This section will challenge us to think deeply about the simultaneous complexities and simplicities around the execution of Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s will. For example, we’ll explore some of the different versions that Kosciuszko left of his will, including one copy that he revised together with Jefferson. We’ll learn more about the legal system, created by Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, which Jefferson ultimately refused to participate in at the end of his life (by not honoring the execution of Kosciuszko’s will and avoiding litigation). We’ll hear another historian’s understanding or narrative of the situation between Kosciuszko and Jefferson. We’ll consider how, while Thomas Jefferson is directly implicated in the continuation of slavery by breaking his promise to Kosciuszko, slavery was a systemically sustained horror with many supporters.

2. Pass out the student copy:

Have students work alone, in pairs, or as a class to closely read and annotate the texts, answering the guiding questions as needed for comprehension.

  • [NOTE] The student copy is currently formatted for online use, with the discussion questions lined up with the corresponding paragraphs. If you print it, please change the spacing to allow for students to write and make sure that the questions match the appropriate place on the letter.

3. Discuss the following questions:

  • [NOTE] Discussion can take place individually in writing, in pairs, in small groups, or as a class. These questions are designed to examine the complexities and nuances inherent in Kosciuszko’s copies of the will, as well as in the narrative that is told about Kosciuszko and Jefferson.
  • Questions:
    • Why do you think Kosciuszko edited the phrasing of his will (between the two copies you read)? What might this change signify, in the context of his perspective on slavery and his friendship with Thomas Jefferson?
    • Had Kosciuszko’s will been executed, do you think that his decision (to dedicate his wealth to the emancipation of enslaved people) was an effective form of resistance and allyship?
    • In what ways is our understanding of Kosciusko’s friendship with Jefferson limited? What sources would help us more truthfully make sense of their relationship?
    • What is Professor Gordon-Reed’s primary argument? What evidence does she utilize to support her interpretation of the past?
    • What themes, ideas, or language is missing from Professor Gordon-Reed's letter? What do you notice about what she's choosing to focus on?
      • Specifically, where does the word “freedom” or “liberation” show up in the letter? Track how many times it appears. Discuss the implications of how little or how many times it appears. Does its frequency or infrequency communicate to you the weight that the author is assigning to Jefferson’s refusal to execute the will?
    • Does Professor Gordon-Reed’s essay read as a defense of Thomas Jefferson’s actions, or as a neutral statement of factual information? Or something else entirely? What in her writing supports your belief?


  • Discuss the following questions as a whole class.
  • Questions:
    • [Frame] Before introducing Professor Gordon-Reed’s take, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: “One final note before I cede the floor: This whole conversation has the potential to get ugly. I am not one who believes in decorum for decorum's sake. But my hope is that we can talk about this with great passion, but without undue rancor.
    • What do you think Coates means by this line?
    • What confusing or “ugly” questions, assumptions, and implications arise from the article? From closely reading both the initial and the rewritten copy of Kosciuszko’s will?
    • How do you think this historical moment should be remembered, told, and taught to future students? What narrative(s) or understandings are more truthful and oriented towards justice? What narrative(s) or understandings obscure the truth or ignore justice / accountability?


  • To help students engage more deeply with this text, you can consider implementing the “Creative Responses” curriculum resource after reading this text.
  • Alternatively, you can introduce:
    • Black out poetry: Have students turn either Kosciuszko’s wills or Professor Gordon-Reed’s letter into poetry.
      • Underline words or phrases that stand out to them.
      • Read through the underlined words and edit to make a meaningful piece when read in order, adding or eliminating words as needed.
      • Highlight in black or use black marker to “erase” the words not used.
      • Compare student poems and discuss choices.
    • Tweeting: Ask students to turn either Kosciuszko’s wills or Professor Gordon-Reed’s letter into a series of tweets. Discuss whether they chose to maintain or change each author’s tone and why.
  • Finally, you can ask students to unpack their understanding of “education” through reading the following resource.
    • According to this text, Lear attempted to create a school in honor of Kosciuszko under the “auspices” of the African Education Society, which “sought to educate freed slaves for colonization in Africa”. You can learn more about the African Education Society here, which says: “Although originally founded in an effort to ‘educate Black children to take their place as equals to white Americans,’ the New York African Free Schools (NYAFS) represented ‘a complicated mix of good intentions, disturbing decisions, and decidedly mixed messages.’”
    • Carry out a short discussion with students where you ask:
      • “We sometimes think of ‘education’ as a form of liberation. However, is that how education was being utilized by the African Education Society? Is education always a path to liberation?”