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The Declaration of Independence and the Promise of Liberty and Equality for All: Founding Principles and the Problem of Slavery

180 min

Guiding Questions:

  • How did the principles of the Declaration of Independence contribute to the quest to end slavery?


  • Students will analyze the application of Founding principles of liberty, justice, and equality in the Founding era by:
    • Analyzing Founding ideas and actions on slavery in primary source documents.
    • Examining the Preamble and clauses relevant to slavery contained in the U.S. Constitution of 1787.
  • Students will reflect on the ideas, institutions, and individuals in the Founding Era to determine how we might apply the lessons gleaned from this period to today.

Have students complete Handout B: Background Reading and accompanying questions. If using, also distribute Handout A: Vocabulary. For younger or lower-level readers, you may wish to complete a read-aloud and answer questions as a class.

Have students do a quick-write or discuss with a partner/as a class the following prompt:

The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

  • What is the meaning of equality, liberty, and justice in the Declaration of Independence?
  • Are these ideas of equality, liberty, and justice attainable?
  • If you think these rights are attainable, explain how – what sorts of constitutional/political arrangements and institutions are necessary to attain them? If you are skeptical that these things are attainable, explain why. What are the major obstacles (such as aspects of human nature or political impediments) to their achievement?

Students will analyze the primary sources using the questions provided. They can work individually, in pairs or small groups, or by visiting stations for each source, either a full set (Handout C) or an abbreviated set (Handout D).

Once students have completed the primary sources, distribute Handout F: Concluding Analysis. Sorting of the documents into the three groups of laws and policy, the courts, and “We the People” (individuals and groups) can be done as a class, individually, in pairs, or in small groups as best fits your classroom. Note that students may place a document in more than one category. If this happens, encourage them to explain their reasoning to generate discussion. The portrait of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman has been completed as an example that could be placed into two groups because she made the choice to sue for her freedom, but she used the court system to achieve it.

Allow students time to complete the final conclusion and analysis questions individually. These questions are meant to generate discussion and will appear across the curriculum.

Debrief with a class discussion if time permits and your classroom culture is well suited to dialogue. Students may also wish to share their responses in small groups or with you privately by posting to a class website.

Have students reflect on and answer the following question:

Identify a historical moment in this lesson that resonated with you, or a person in the lesson whose words or actions did so. Why is this moment or person meaningful to you? What lessons did this moment or person teach you? How might we apply that to the present day?

Have students research the story of Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who successfully escaped from George Washington. What does her story reveal about the reality of life for enslaved men and women? What does it reveal about the complexity of slavery during the Founding era?

Have students research the lives of free African Americans in the Founding era (several suggested individuals are listed below). What do their stories reveal about the complexity of the African American experience in this time period?

Have students poll family, friends, and classmates on the role of compromise by considering the following questions and have them share their results with the class:

  • To what extent is compromise necessary in politics?
  • How do you know when to compromise?
  • Are there good and bad compromises? How can you tell the difference between a good and a bad compromise?
  • What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve compromise?

Student Handouts