Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The Declaration of Independence: "An Expression of the American Mind"

A We The People Resource

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The Lesson

Introduction

The Declaration of Independence, original document.

The Declaration of Independence, original document.

Credit: Image courtesy of the National Archives.

In an 1825 letter to Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, discussed who deserved credit for the ideas contained in that document. Looking back to the early years of the American Revolution, Jefferson related how the decision "to resort to arms for redress" of American grievances led patriots of the American cause to issue "an appeal to the tribunal of the world" with an eye towards explaining and justifying the American actions.

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, not yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All it's [sic] authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & c.

Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825

Reflecting back forty-nine years after the fact, did Jefferson accurately portray the process that went into the creation of the Declaration of Independence? If so, what were those "harmonizing sentiments of the day" to which he referred? This lesson plan looks at the major ideas in the Declaration of Independence, their origins, the Americans' key grievances against the King and Parliament, their assertion of sovereignty, and the Declaration's process of revision. Upon completion of the lesson, students will be familiar with the document's origins, and the influences that produced Jefferson's "expression of the American mind."

This lesson plan is divided into two parts; teachers can choose to use one or both of them:

  • Activity 1: The structure of the Declaration: introduction, main political/philosophical ideas, grievances, assertion of sovereignty
  • Activity 2: The ideological/political origins of the ideas in the Declaration

Guiding Questions

  • What are the major ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence?
  • What are some of the sources for the language and ideas found in the Declaration of Independence?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to

  • Understand the structure of the Declaration—its four component parts
  • Identify the key ideas in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence: natural rights, the social contract, the right to revolution, popular sovereignty, and the right of self-determination
  • Identify the chief grievances advanced by the American patriots and explain how they related to the events that preceded the Constitutional Convention
  • Understand the Americans' assertion of sovereignty in the concluding section and their determination to fight for it
  • Identify a variety of sources for the specific language that made its way into the Declaration of Independence

Background

The events that led up to declaring independence in July of 1776 have been written about and analyzed extensively. Below are some useful links that provide background and excellent overviews of the evolution toward and arguments for the Declaration of Independence.

For an overall understanding of the key themes of natural rights, the social contract, the right to revolution, popular sovereignty, and the right of self-determination in the Declaration, see the Teacher's Guide on EDSITEment-reviewed PBS Liberty. You can also search for background materials at the entry on John Locke on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an EDSITEment-reviewed website, especially noting the sections on:

For The Declaration of Independence and Natural Rights, specifically, see A Debate on Natural Rights from Hutchinson's "A Dialogue between an American and a European Englishman," E Pluribus Unum, a link on EDSITEment-reviewed, Center for History and New Media

For an understanding of how the Declaration of Independence should be viewed not in isolation but as the culmination of over 90 local declarations of Independence, see Pauline Maier's interview "What Was the Declaration of Independence?" on the Online Newshour, a link on the Internet Public Library. Maier is the author of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York, 1997), one of the best books on the evolution of the Declaration

Other resources include:

Preparation Instructions

Download or bookmark the following EDSITEment websites.

Activity 1
Activity 2

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Declaration's Origins: Four (4) Primary Sources for Understanding the Declaration of Independence

Much of the language and many of the ideas in the Declaration can be found in other documents, to which Jefferson and the other writers had access. In this activity, students will be able to see these influences and understand the evolution of ideas over time that culminated in the Declaration. (At this point, the teacher may want to show students the Maier interview or explain her view of the ideological underpinnings of the Declaration.)

  • Either working individually or in small groups, students will receive a copy the Declaration of Independence (to be annotated), copies of these four documents, and a chart to record information.
  • As students read each of the four documents, they will search for the portion of the Declaration that was influenced by the document's text. They will compare the Declaration's ideas with these other documents. Students should analyze the extent of the connection and influence of the ideas in their document to the wording in specific sections of the Declaration.
  • In addition, they will fill in the accompanying chart to document the accumulation of ideas leading to the Declaration.
  • After the students have finished, the teacher should project a copy of the student-annotated Declaration(s) to enable the students to see the extent to which the ideas in the final document came from these earlier ones. The students can engage in a discussion about the extent of the influences and the reasons for those connections of ideas.

1. John Locke's Second Treatise on Government, Section 225, 1690 from The Constitution Society, a link on EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, in this excerpt, Locke explains under what circumstances the people have the right to alter their form of government. (excerpt in separate PDF).

2. Massachusetts Slave Petition, May 27, 1774, Founder's Constitution, a link on Learner.org, In this slave petition to the governing bodies of Massachusetts, the natural rights argument is made boldly by a people denied ANY rights at that time. (Students should focus on arguments at the beginning and end of the petition.)

3. Malden Massachusetts Statement of Independence, May 27, 1776, EDSITEment-reviewed Teaching American History. In this document, the citizens of the town of Malden express their concerns to their representative at the Continental Congress about the actions of the British and why a declaration in favor of independence was necessary and appropriate at that time. (Students will find the specific grievances in paragraphs three and four that connect to the Declaration's grievances. Students should pay close attention to the concluding two paragraphs of the Statement of Independence. Is the language stronger or weaker than that in the conclusion of the Declaration?)

4. George Mason and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776, from Colonial Williamsburg, a link on EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History. This document, urging Virginia's delegates to support such an action, was passed a little more than three weeks before the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress. (Students should focus on the first three clauses of this Declaration of Rights to see how it resembles the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence). (excerpt in separate PDF).

Activity 2. The Declaration's Key Ideas

Students will read and explain the structure of the Declaration: introduction, main political and philosophical ideas, the grievances, and the assertion of sovereignty.

1. Give each student a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the EDSITEment-reviewed Avalon Project and Was the Revolution Justified? (the Grievances Made Simple).

Alternative: If you feel your students have a strong background, you could dispense with the Gilder Lehrman document and have the students work only with the Declaration.

2. As a whole-class exercise, do a guided reading of the introduction to the Declaration of Independence, with the teacher modeling how to decipher language and "explain" its meaning and significance, i.e. what is the main idea in this first part, why is it here, and WHY is it important?

Teacher Annotation in a separate PDF.

3. Then, the students will read the next section (starting with "We hold these truths …), which contains references to natural rights, the social contract, and the right to revolution. The teacher should lead a brief discussion of these three concepts to ensure that students understand their meaning. The students' task will be to identify and locate the three concepts in the text; then they will re-write them in their own words and explain how they relate to the struggle between the English and American colonists. They should also address how revolutionary were these ideas in two respects: how did they support the idea of revolution and, given the context of the times, why were these ideas unusual and new? Once students have identified these references, the teacher could then move the discussion into the direction of explaining what each one of these terms means in greater depth.

See sample student annotation in separate PDF.

4. Next, students will analyze the list of grievances (using the original text and the Gilder Lehrman version). Each student should be assigned one grievance, which they will read and annotate, and then will report back to the class about what it is saying, how it relates to the struggle with England, and its significance. Alternative without Gilder Lehrman version: see step 1.

5. The Charges by Type: [If time allows]: Divide the grievances by their type and have students analyze the similarities and differences in each group. Students should read their assigned grievances and write annotations that explain the particular problems in this section and what they show about the British-American relationship.

The following categories might prove useful in setting up this exercise:

  • King's Abuse of Power: The first group, consisting of charges 1–12, refers to such abuses of the king's executive power as suspending colonial laws, dissolving colonial legislatures, obstructing the administration of justice, and maintaining a standing army during peacetime.
  • King and Parliament acting Together: The second group, consisting of charges 13–22, attacks the king for combining with "others" (Parliament) to subject America to a variety of unconstitutional measures, including taxing the colonists without consent, cutting off their trade with the rest of the world, curtailing their right to trial by jury, and altering their charters.
  • The King's War Crimes: The third set of charges, numbers 23–27, assails the king's violence and cruelty in waging war against his American subjects
  • As an alternative, other categories could be chosen such as economic interests, infringement of colonial self-government, and violation of individual rights

6. Finally, students should identify phrases in which the Americans assert their rights to popular sovereignty and self-determination, and where they say what they will do to achieve them. The students should explain these ideas in their own words.

Assessment

Activity 1: Students will take on the role of a colonial newspaper editor, preparing an editorial for July 5th, the day after the contents of the Declaration have become public. They will write a pro-independence or anti-independence editorial, depending on the viewpoint of their newspaper, explaining the main ideas of the Declaration, its ideological antecedents, and their approval/disapproval.

Activity 2: Students should take on the role of a textbook editor and write a section about the background influences on the Declaration. They will write short paragraphs, explaining the key sections of the Declaration along with its "predecessor," and will include information about who wrote the document and its impact on the Declaration. They will include a chart, similar to the one used in this activity.

Extending The Lesson

1. Later Influences/Staying Power/Other Declarations: Just as the Declaration of Independence evolved from earlier writings, so, too, it has affected later demands for more freedom. In this extension, students can look at how the Declaration has been evoked on behalf of other groups in U.S. history.

Subsequent Declarations of Independence, selections in "All Men Are Created Equal": The Power Of An Idea by Bob Blythe.

2. Lincoln and the Declaration: Students could analyze extent to which the Declaration influenced Lincoln's thinking and the writing of the Gettysburg Address, Avalon Project.

3. Writing and Revising the Declaration: Thomas Jefferson and Group Work: Students will be able to appreciate how much of a "team" effort the writing of the Declaration actually was. Although Jefferson gets the lion's share of historical credit, in fact, the final product was a group effort, including the initial input of the four other committee members—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. In the final stage, members of the Continental Congress offered their suggestions, which were not entirely welcomed by Jefferson (The writing of the Declaration is an example for students of how teams work in the real world. A team is assigned the work, one person does the draft, gets feedback from others, and then they present to larger group and get feedback.)

Students "interview" Thomas Jefferson, about what it was like to have "his" document altered. The interview should show the major changes that were made. Students should try to determine how Jefferson would have felt about them

Students will compare two different versions of the Declaration of Independence Jefferson's "draft" at the Library of Congress and the final version, which was edited by the Continental Congress, at the Avalon Project.

Two good articles on the drafting process:

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
Authors
  • Richard Miller, Beacon High School (New York, NY)
  • Mikal Muharrar, New York Historical Society (New York, NY)
  • Martin Burke, Lehman College, CUNY (New York, NY)