An idealized depiction of (left to right) Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration
Credit: (Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1900). Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Long before the first shot was fired, the American Revolution began as a series of written complaints to colonial governors and representatives in England over the rights of the colonists.
In fact, a list of grievances comprises the longest section of the Declaration of Independence. The organization of the Declaration of Independence reflects what has come to be known as the classic structure of argument—that is, an organizational model for laying out the premises and the supporting evidence, the contexts and the claims for argument.
According to its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration was intended to be a model of political argument. On its 50th anniversary, Jefferson wrote that the object of the Declaration was “[n]ot 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.”
Capitalize on your students’ propensity to complain by introducing them to the elements of a good argument. In this lesson, students attempt to formulate their own declaration before examining the Declaration of Independence. Through a close reading of the document, they come to an understanding of how its structure forms a coherent, lucid, and powerful argument for independence.
The American Revolution had its origin in the colonists’ concern over contemporary overreach by the King and Parliament as well as by their awareness of English historical precedents for the resolution of civic and political issues as expressed in such documents as the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights.
For example, opponents of the Stamp Act of 1765 declared that the act—which was designed to raise money to support the British army stationed in America after 1763 by requiring Americans to buy stamps for newspapers, legal documents, mortgages, liquor licenses, even playing cards and almanacs—was illegal and unjust because it taxed Americans without their consent. In protesting the act, they cited the following prohibition against taxation without consent from the Magna Carta, written five hundred and fifty years earlier, in 1215: “No scutage [tax] ... shall be imposed..., unless by common counsel....”
American resistance forced the British Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766. In the succeeding years, similar taxes were levied by Parliament and protested by many Americans.
In June 1776, when it became clear that pleas and petitions to the King and Parliament were useless, the members of the Continental Congress assigned the task of drafting a "declaration of independence" to a committee that included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Considered by his peers in the Congress and the committee as one of the most highly educated and most eloquent members of the Congress, Jefferson accepted the leadership of the committee.
For days, he labored over the draft, working meticulously late into the evenings at his desk in his lodging on Market Street in Philadelphia, carefully laying out the charges against His Majesty King George III, of Great Britain and the justification for separation of the colonies. Franklin and Adams helped to edit Jefferson’s draft. After some more revisions by the Congress, the Declaration was adopted on July 4. It was in that form that the colonies declared their independence from British rule.
What is an Argument?
An argument is a set of claims that includes 1) a conclusion; and 2) a set of premises or reasons that support it. Both the conclusion(s) and premise(s) are “claims”, that is, declarative sentences that are offered by the author of the argument as "truth statements". A conclusion is a claim meant to be supported by premises, while a premise is a claim that operates as a "reason why," or a justification for the conclusion. All arguments will have at least one conclusion and one—and often more than one—premise in its support.
In the first of this lesson’s three activities, students will develop a list of complaints about the way they are being treated by parents, teachers, or other students. In the second activity, they will prioritize these complaints and organize them into an argument for their position.
In the last activity, they will examine the Declaration of Independence as a model of argument, considering each of its parts, their function, and how the organization of the whole document aids in persuading the audience of the justice and necessity of independence. Students will then use what they have learned from examining the Declaration to edit their own list of grievances. Finally they will reflect on that editing process and what they have learned from it.
Final Assessment: Analyzing the Declaration of Independence
Tell students that you have overheard them make various complaints at times about the way they are treated by some other teachers and other fellow students: complaints not unlike those that motivated the founding fathers at the time of the American Revolution. Explain that even though adults have the authority to restrict some of their rights, this situation is not absolute. Also point out that fellow students do not have the right to “bully” or take advantage of them.
Have students write down their complaints as a list, identifying the reasons why the treatment under discussion is objectionable and organizing the list according to some principle, such as from less to more important. Let each student comment on one another student’s list and its organization.
Ask the students to imagine that, in the hope of effecting some changes, they are going to compose a document based on their complaints to be sent to the appropriate audience.
Divide the class into small groups of 2–3 students and distribute the handout, “So, What Are You Going To Do About It?” Tell students that before they begin to compose their “declaration” they should consider the questions on the handout. (Note: The questions correspond to the sections of the Declaration noted in parentheses. The Declaration itself will be discussed in Activity 3. This discussion serves as a prewriting activity for the writing assignment.)
Hold a general discussion with the class about the questions. Have individual groups respond to the questions in each of the sections and ask other groups to contribute.
The Declaration of Independence was created in an atmosphere of complaints about the treatment of the colonies under British rule. In this activity students will identify and analyze the parts of the Declaration through a close reading. Students will also be given the opportunity to construct a document in the manner of the Declaration of Independence based on their own complaints.
Provide every student with a copy of the Declaration of Independence in Six Parts. Ask them to “scan” the entire document once to understand the parts and their function. After that they will be asked to reread the document this time more closely. Have students identify the six sections (below) by describing what is generally being said in each. Help students identify these sections with the following titles:
Preamble: the reasons WHY it is necessary to EXPLAIN their actions (from "WHEN, in the Course of human Events" to "declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation.")
Statement of commonly accepted principles: specifying what the undersigned believed, the philosophy behind the document (from "We hold these Truths to be self-evident" to "an absolute Tyranny over these States") which underlies the argument
List of Complaints: the offenses by King and Parliament that impelled the declaration (from "To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World" to "unfit to be the ruler of a free people")
Statements of prior attempts to redress grievances: (From "Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren," to "Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.")
Conclusion: (From "WE, therefore" to "and our sacred Honour.") Following from the principles held by the Americans, and the actions of the King and Parliament, the people have the right and duty to declare independence.
Oath: Without this oath on the part of the colonists dedicating themselves to securing independence by force of arms, the assertion would be mere parchment.
Have students arrange their constructed complaint into a master document (“Parts of Your Argument” section of worksheet 1) for further analysis by matching each section of their personal complaints to the above six corresponding sections of the Declaration.
As an assessment, students make a deeper analysis of the Declaration and compare their declarations to the founding document.
Divide the class into small groups of 3–4 students, each taking one of the Declaration’s sections, as defined in Activity 3. Distribute copies of the student handout, “Analyzing the Declaration of Independence.” Assign each group one of the sections and have them answer the questions from their section.
Guide students in understanding how their section of the Declaration of Independence corresponds to the relevant question of their personal declaration in Activity 3.
Once the groups have finished their handouts, have each report their findings to the class. As they listen to the other presentations, have students take notes to complete the entire handout.
For a final summing up, have students reflect on what they have learned about making an argument from the close study of Declaration’s structure.
1-2 class periods class periods