This two-day lesson examines the Declaration of Independence and the key ideas behind it.
On day one, students first explore the purpose of government as they react to the question: Why does government exist? Next, they read an article on the reasons behind the Declaration of Independence and engage in a discussion on it.
On day two, students review the previous session, and then they work in pairs to put the historic second paragraph of the document into their own words.
Students will be able to:
California History Social Science Standard 8.1
Students understand the major events preceding the founding of the nation and relate their significance to the development of American constitutional democracy. (2) Analyze the philosophy of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence, with an emphasis on government as a means of securing individual rights (e.g., key phrases such as “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”).
California’s Common Core State Standards
Civic Education Connections to Common Core Standards. The Rise of Democratic Ideals: How does the Declaration of Independence support an argument for independence using specific claims in the Declaration as a rationale for independence? Compare and contrast information presented as a primary and secondary source about a particular topic or issue. For example, ask students to analyze information, arguments, and claims set forth in the Declaration of Independence with information, arguments, and claims in secondary sources that describe the document.
Preparation and Materials
I. Focus Discussion
A. Engage students in a discussion to get them thinking about the purpose of government. Questions to raise:
B. Historical Context for the Declaration of Independence. Remind students that in early American history, the colonists had to make some difficult decisions about government. One of the most important decisions they had to make was whether to continue to be governed by the British Empire.
Explain that many laws passed by the British Parliament were viewed as unfair by the colonists. The British also sent soldiers to intimidate the colonists and threaten force against any open protest. For these reasons, the colonists eventually thought it was necessary to rebel against their government. They thought they had no other way to change the laws and make them fair.
Explain that they went even further than rebellion. They declared themselves a new and independent nation. The Declaration of Independence is a document written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. The declaration would be sent to King George III and Parliament and the governments of other nations to notify the world that the American states would no longer be governed as British colonies.
II. Reading and Discussion — Writing the Declaration of Independence
A. Let students know that they are going to go behind the scenes when America was deciding to declare independence from England. They will discover why the Declaration of Independence has become one of our most important historical documents. In it, Jefferson expressed key ideas about the purpose of government.
B. Tell students that they are going to read about Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. As they read, they need to look for:
C. Distribute Handout 2A: Writing the Declaration of Independence to students and explain that after they read, they will have a conversation about why Americans decided to break away from England.
D. When they finish reading, hold a discussion using the For Discussion and Writing questions:
Other questions to raise:
I. Focus Discussion
A. Review with students what they learned in the last session. Questions to raise:
B. Tell students that now they are going to take a closer look at the words of the Declaration.
II. Paired Activity — In Your Own Words
A. Distribute Handout 2B: In Your Own Words. Read aloud the text from the declaration on the handout:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. . . .
B. Hold a discussion by asking these questions:
C. Divide the class into pairs of students and explain that each pair will discuss what the words in this paragraph means to them today. The important terms are highlighted in bold on the handout. They will then rewrite the key ideas in this historic paragraph in their own words for a contemporary audience. Give students 20 minutes to discuss and rewrite the paragraph in their own words.
D. After they have rewritten the paragraph, select a few to read their work to the class.
E. Debrief the activity by asking these questions:
III. History Experience Planner
The projects students create for the History Experience must be related to a yearly theme. This year’s theme is the Declaration of Independence. This lesson and Lesson 3 provides students the opportunity to explore the Declaration of Independence and its importance in history, which will help them decide on a topic for their projects.
Assign students Log 2: Declaration of Independence Overview as homework. To complete the log, students can review Handout 2A or go to the History Experience Research Links.