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The Declaration of Independence – Docs of Freedom

195 min

Guiding Questions

  • What are the revolutionary principles found in the Declaration?
  • What is the relevance of the Declaration of Independence today?
  • To what extent was the Declaration of Independence a document of equality?
  • What were Thomas Jefferson’s greatest influences in writing the Declaration of Independence?

Objectives

  • Students will evaluate the structure of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Students will identify the revolutionary principles found in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Students will analyze the significance of the Declaration of Independence over time.
  • Students will evaluate the statement “all men are created equal.”
  • Students will compare the philosophy of the John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government and the Declaration of Independence.

  • property
  • liberty
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Founders
  • King George III
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • justice
  • equality
  • consent

Warm-up activity: Why Independence?

Have students, as a whole group, create a T chart of British actions against the Colonists and Colonist reactions to the British. Focus the T-chart to the years between 1763 and 1776. Possible answers may include:

British Actions Against the Colonists

Colonist reactions to the British

Proclamation of 1763

Taxes: Stamp Act, Townshend Act, Tea Act

Quartering Act

Boston Massacre

Intolerable Acts

Closing Colonial Assemblies

Lexington and Concord

Battle of Bunker Hill

Boycott

Tarring and Feathering tax collectors

Stamp Act Congress

Sons of Liberty

Daughters of Liberty

Petition the King

Boston Tea Party

Continental Congress

Olive Branch Petition

 

Have students participate in a discussion

  • How successful have colonial actions been in ending tyrannical control over the colonies?
  • Do you think it was feasible to reconcile and return to the positive relationship between mother country and colony?

Provide students with a copy of the quote from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

…Men of passive tempers look somewhat lightly over the offences of Great Britain, and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, “Come, come, we shall be friends again for all this.” But examine the passions and feelings of mankind: bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature, and then tell me whether you can hereafter love, honour, and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land? If you cannot do all these, then are you only deceiving yourselves, and by your delay bringing ruin upon posterity. Your future connection with Britain, whom you can neither love nor honour, will be forced and unnatural, and being formed only on the plan of present convenience, will in a little time fall into a relapse more wretched than the first. But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.

Have the students read the Thomas Paine quote and explain why he believed that reconciliation was not possible. Then conclude with the question: What course of action should the colonists take if they cannot reconcile with Great Britain?

Activity 1: The Declaration of Independence Scavenger Hunt [15 minutes]

Distribute Handout A: Declaration of Independence.

Cut out and distribute Handout B: Scavenger Hunt Slips.

Have the students find out how the person, place, or thing on their slip was/is related to the Declaration of Independence. This can be done as a homework assignment prior to class or provide students with class time.

Have a few students share their findings with the class.


Activity 2: The Structure of the Declaration [45 minutes]

Distribute Handout A: Declaration of Independence and Handout C: The Structure of the Declaration to each group.

Divide the class into 6 groups. Assign each group one section of the Declaration as shown on Handout C; additionally, all groups should consider the signature section. Note: The Indictments section is divided between two groups because of its length.

Have students skim their sections of the Declaration and record the key ideas for their sections as shown on Handout C. Caution students not to get bogged down in long sentences or unfamiliar vocabulary; at this point they are just trying to get an overview.

Have each group report the purpose and main ideas of its section.

Have students participate in a pair share and whole group discussion. Pose each question to the class, allow pair share time, and then follow up with whole group. Use the following questions for discussion:

  • Why include a long list of grievances?
  • Why are the grievances stated as general ideas and not specific events?
  • Why is it important that the colonists had tried to get the King to change the way he treated them?
  • Which do you believe is the most important section? Why?
  • What are the Revolutionary principles found in the Declaration?
  • What does the Declaration assert about consent of the governed?
  • What does the Declaration assert about the origin of our rights?
  • The Declaration of Independence is not law, so what is its relevance today?

Activity 3: Key Excerpts [30 minutes]

Distribute copies of Handout D: Key Excerpts to students and have students underline what they believe are the most important words and phrases from these excerpts of the Declaration of Independence.

Lead a whole-class discussion of the questions on Handout D.


Activity 4: The Declaration, the Founders, and Slavery [30 minutes]

Have students read Handout E: The Declaration, The Founders and Slavery and work in small groups to discuss the quotations on the back and select their favorite quotation and put it in their own words.

Discuss to clarify any confusing vocabulary and ask students: Which quotation seems most relevant to modern times?

Note: Handout F: Slavery Essay by Rob McDonald might be used as an extension resource.


Activity 5: Comparing the Second Treatise to the Declaration [30 minutes]

Provide each student with a copy of Handout G: Comparing the Second Treatise of Civil Government to the Declaration of Independence

Have students compare the Second Treatise of Civil Government to the Declaration of Independence. Students will work in small groups to identify similarities and differences between the two documents and answer the question at the end.

Have students discuss their answers as a whole group and conclude by discussing why Thomas Jefferson did not officially cite John Locke in the Declaration of Independence. Does Jefferson’s failure to do so mean that he plagiarized John Locke?

On February 22, 1861, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Independence Hall in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, the location where the Declaration of Independence was ratified. In his speech he said,

“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence—I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence…”

Have the students read the Lincoln quote and participate in a whole group discussion answering the question: Why has a document written in 1776, with the purpose of declaring independence from the British continued to influence the United States? Do you think it has finally served its purpose or will it continue to be relevant?  

Provide each student with a copy of Handout H: Response to the Declaration of Independence.

Have students read the excerpt and write a response to this prompt: What are the most important ideals, principles, or virtues expressed in the Declaration of Independence and to what extent does America today meet the promise of those ideals?

Provide students with a copy of the Thomas Jefferson Letter to Roger Weightman and The Declaration of Independence in Global Perspective by David Armitage

Have students read the Letter to Roger Weightman and answer the following questions:

  • How did Thomas Jefferson hope the Declaration of Independence would affect the rest of the world?
  • How did he hope it would affect Americans?

Have students read the Declaration of Independence in Global Perspective and answer the following questions:

  • How has the Declaration of Independence influenced other countries?
  • To what extent has the hope of Thomas Jefferson come true?

Have students participate in a whole group discussion based on these two documents and their answers to the questions. Conclude with a discussion on why students believe the Declaration of Independence has had such a large international effect.


Next Lesson

Justice for All