Closer Readings Commentary

The Declaration of Independence as a foundational document

One of the more thought provoking of the CCSS ELA standards, and yet the one that may give ELA teachers some anxiety is:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.9: Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

A few months ago, we touched on this standard in our discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and promised to have more to say about the meaning of a foundational document. As Americans prepare for July 4th, it seems appropriate to consider the foundational text in our history.

Our lesson The Declaration of Independence: “An Expression of the American Mind” begins with Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to Richard Henry Lee written 50 years after the fact about his intentions in drafting the Declaration.

Jefferson relates 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.

The lesson asks whether Jefferson accurately portray the process that went into the creation of the Declaration. If so, what were those “harmonizing sentiments of the day” to which he referred? In order to answer these questions, students are asked to analyze the structure of the Declaration into its four component parts:

  • philosophical ideas of the Preamble;
  • the set of grievances against the King and Parliament;
  • the concluding assertion of American sovereignty; and
  • the “honorable” determination to fight for it.

The lesson also considers the process of revision Jefferson’s draft underwent at the hands of Benjamin Franklin and the Continental Congress. 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 also 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. Upon completion of this lesson, students will understand the document’s purpose, ideas, structure, and rhetorical features, and how, taken together, these elements produced this “expression of the American mind.”

Why is the Declaration “foundational”? A word about the abolitionists

Just as the Declaration of Independence evolved from earlier writings, so, too, it has affected later demands for more freedom and equality. In the extending the lesson section, students look at how the principles of the Declaration have been evoked on behalf of other groups in U.S. history.

For example, after publicly and notoriously burning a copy of the Constitution on July 4, 1854, slavery opponent William Lloyd Garrison (1805–79) asked, “What is an abolitionist but a sincere believer in the Declaration of ‘76?”

In EDSITEment’s lesson, Slavery’s Opponents and Defenders, students are asked to do a close reading of one of Garrison’s earlier speeches “On the Constitution and the Union” in which he denounces the Constitution’s compromises with slavery. They will see that even when most critical of their government, abolitionists such as Garrison evoked its finest principles.

Abraham Lincoln and the Declaration: further exploration

The Declaration influenced Abraham Lincoln’s thinking and was frequently cited in his speeches from 1854 on, culminating in his magnficient refelction on it in the Gettysburg Address (1863). But teachers may not know about his profound meditation on the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution written in the secession winter of 1861. The main goal of EDSITEment’s lesson on the Fragment on the Constitution and Union (1861)—The Purpose of the American Union is to show students how Lincoln’s understanding of the meaning of the American union was based upon a prior understanding of the principle of “liberty to all” found in the Declaration of Independence.

In addition to reading and answering questions on Lincoln’s “Fragment,” students also analyze the Declaration and the verse in Proverbs 25. A synthesis of the ideas in these three documents should enable them to answer the foundational question: What Is the relationship between “Liberty to All” in the Declaration of Independence and the American constitutional government?