Closer Readings Commentary

What Makes the Declaration Foundational?

One of the more thought provoking of the Common Core State Standards, and at the same time, 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.

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 portrayed 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 and tease out 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 oath to support the Declaration “with our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

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.”

“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

The Declaration’s statement of the natural rights of all human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness became a rally cry for the anti-slavery movement. Within a few years of publication, there appeared printed protests against the enslavement of one’s fellow human beings quoting the language of the Declaration.

Decades later, the leader of the anti-slavery movement, William Lloyd Garrison, insisted that an abolitionist could be simply defined as “a sincere believer in the Declaration of ‘76”. Frederick Douglass’ famous speech on “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” delivered in 1852 gives his own assessment of the document: “the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

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 reflection 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. This lesson 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 system?

For a fascinating survey of the social history of the July 4th holiday, see Bonfires, Greased Pig Races, Pickle Contests, and More: Historic Fourth of July Celebrations from Chronicling America.

EDSITEment lessons on U.S.  Foundational Documents