Committee Preparing the Declaration
Students have been known to complain at times. (So have their teachers.) Even the Founding Fathers of our country indulged in gripe sessions. In fact, a list of grievances comprises the longest section of the Declaration of Independence; however, the source of the document's power is its firm philosophic foundation.
You can capitalize on the propensity to complain to increase student awareness of the precedents behind the Declaration of Independence. Help your students see the development of the Declaration as both an historical process and a writing process through role play, creative writing, an introduction to some important documents and a review of historic events.
What precedents exist for specific elements in the Declaration of Independence, both in previous documents and in historical events? How is the Declaration structured?
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:
No scutage [tax] ... shall be imposed..., unless by common counsel...
The source? The Magna Carta, written in 1215, 550 years earlier.
American resistance forced the British Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766. In the succeeding years, similar taxes were levied by British Parliament and protested by many Americans. The American Revolution brewed in a context of Americans' concern over contemporary events as well as awareness of historic precedents. Mindful of both, the framers created the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, in which the colonies declared their freedom from British rule.
Review the lesson plans. Bookmark or download and print out any materials you will use. Make copies of a transcript of the Declaration for every student.
You may wish to provide students with a copy of the Written Document Analysis Worksheet, available through EDSITEment at The Digital Classroom, to guide them as they review primary source documents.
Discuss with students that you have overheard them, at times, make various complaints about the treatment of young people. Complaints not unlike those motivated the Founding Fathers at the time of the American Revolution.
Give the students a short time ? in small groups ? to list complaints they have about the treatment of young people. The complaints should be of a general nature (for example: recess should be longer, fourth graders should be able to see PG videos, etc.). Collect the list. Choose complaints to share with the class, so you can guide the discussion to follow. Save the lists for future reference.
There are moments when all of us are more eager to express what's wrong than we are to think critically about the problem and possible solutions. There is no reason to think people were any different in 1776. It's important to understand the complaints of the colonists as one step in a process involving careful deliberation and attempts to redress grievances.
Ask questions to help your students consider their concerns in a deliberate way. WHO makes the rules they don't like, WHO decides if they are fair or not, HOW does one get them changed, WHAT does it mean to be independent from the rules, and finally, HOW does a group of people declare that they will no longer follow the rules?
Ask the students to imagine that, in hopes of effecting some changes, they are going to compose a document based on their complaints to be sent to the appropriate audience. As they begin to compose their document, they should consider the following questions. (Note to the teacher: The following questions correspond to the sections of the Declaration, as noted in parentheses, which will be discussed later. This discussion serves as a prewriting activity for the writing assignment.)
The Declaration of Independence was created in an atmosphere of complaints about the treatment of the colonies under British rule. In this unit, students will be given the opportunity to compose a document based on their own complaints; however, the resulting "declarations" might be more convincing if based on some models already proven effective.
Provide every student with a transcript of the Declaration. There is no need to do a close reading of the entire document at this point. The immediate goal is to understand the structure of the document and the basic intent of each section. Discuss the Declaration with students, using the following section-by-section questions help students relate this overview of the Declaration to the previous discussion.
Working alone or in small groups, students draft their own declarations. The transcript of the Declaration of Independence will serve as a model; student documents should contain the same sections. They should start with their reasons for writing (preamble), as discussed above. Tell students they can model their statement after the Preamble to the Declaration. For example, they can begin with the words "When, in the course of human events ..."
After a session of work on their declarations, introduce to students the idea of earlier documents that set a precedent for the Declaration. Let students know that the committee members who drafted our Declaration (John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia) were aware of documents from earlier years. Some of these documents served as models as the committee members wrote the Declaration. Perhaps seeing precedents for the Declaration will help students in composing theirs.
Ask students to work in small groups to review some of the earlier documents and find common features between the historical documents and the Declaration. If desired and appropriate for your class, this would be a good time to read the entire Declaration.
Students should look at the historical documents for similar structures (the document has a preamble, for instance) or phrases or passages that relate to the Declaration. As they read the excerpts, students should refer back to their transcript of the Declaration of Independence. Students should not attempt close readings of the documents. Instead, they scan key passages for similarities. (If you wish, you could have students locate documents on their own, using The Avalon Project At The Yale Law School website, accessible through EDSITEment.)
The following documents are available through the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project At The Yale Law School unless otherwise noted.
Guide to Independent Searches for Precedent Setting Documents
The Avalon Project contains many relevant documents and is fully searchable. Students can search for terms such as "rights" or "taxes" or "standing armies" within the Colonial Charters, Grants, and Early Constitution collection listed in the pull-down menu on the search page. Students should be aware that search results will include documents created after 1776, which are irrelevant to the task at hand. The Avalon Project website has amassed a list of documents under the title The American Constitution: A Documentary Record, including forerunners to the United States Constitution. There you may find additional relevant documents. Of special interest are the sections "The Roots of the Constitution" and "Revolution and Independence."
Once student groups have analyzed the historical documents that preceded the Declaration of Independence, ask them to share their findings with the rest of the class. In what ways were the earlier documents similar to the Declaration?
You may wish to create a display of the information students have uncovered. For example, on a large bulletin board, center the text of the Declaration. Highlight relevant excerpts. Use a colored strand of yarn to lead from each Declaration excerpt to a posting of the name and date of a related document. Classes with the necessary technology, skill, and computer access can do this same exercise on the computer, creating hyperlinks to the precedents.
Students should continue to work on their declarations, either during class or as a homework assignment. They can use what they learned through the study of relevant documents created before the Declaration as a guide for the information they wish to include in their documents. By this time, students should be working on the statement of beliefs and the complaints section of their declarations.
Now students can look at some drafts of the Declaration. Every class should view actual images of these drafts with corrections written in Jefferson's handwriting. Some classes might benefit from a closer look at the kinds of changes that occurred. The committee and Continental Congress are said to have made a total of 86 changes to the document.
American Memory has a collection of Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789, containing many historic documents, including images and transcripts of original copies of various drafts of the Declaration. Students may be especially interested to view an image of a fragment of the Declaration and a transcript of the earliest known draft of the Declaration. You can also access an image and transcript of a later draft of the Declaration.
Reading just a small portion of the later draft will demonstrate the significant changes that took place as the Congress worked on the Declaration. Did the final version improve on the draft? If so, how?
Students should continue to work on their declarations. They should be nearing completion of a first draft, including a statement of prior attempts to redress grievances, and a declaration of independence. Take some time to discuss the writing process within the student groups. How did they proceed? Did they ever go back and make changes? What kinds of changes? Did more than one person have input?
Now, the student groups should complete and present their "declarations." If typed on a computer, these can be printed out in an appropriately ornate font. The paper can be stained using tea to give the appearance of age. Students should sign the document on which they worked.
If students have access to the necessary technology, they can create hyperlinks from sections of their computerized declaration to specific precedents in the Declaration.
Students should now reflect on their experience writing a declaration and the process that created it. What part of their own declaration would they say most resembles the 1776 Declaration of Independence? Which complaint? Which part of their beliefs? What changes did they make in the course of writing their documents? How did the group decide how to proceed? Student declarations should be posted and, if practical, sent to the intended audience (parents, principal).
For a culminating activity, the documents can be read in class in ceremonial fashion. The documents' reflection of the structure of the Declaration will help the teacher assess the success of the activity.
Guide To Precedent Setting Documents for The Constitution
Resources available from The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School:
2 class periods