History Experience Lesson 2: Writing the Declaration of Independence

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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:

  1. Define key vocabulary terms found in the Declaration of Independence.
  2. Determine the purposes of government and give examples.
  3. Explain the context for the Declaration of Independence and why it became a necessity.
  4. Examine key ideas in the language of the historic second paragraph of the declaration.
  5. Paraphrase and rewrite key ideas found in the Declaration of Independence in in their own words.

Standards Addressed

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

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

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


Day One

I.   Focus Discussion

A. Engage students in a discussion to get them thinking about the purpose of government. Questions to raise:

    • Why does government exist? What do you think its purpose is?
      Look for: Establish order, protect people from foreign attack and domestic violence, provide services, protect people’s rights, and raise money for these functions.
    • How can people show they disagree with what their government is doing?
      Accept reasonable responses, which may include voting for different representatives, organizing protests, and signing petitions.
    • What is revolution? When is it all right to revolt against the government?
      Revolution means to change the government completely, or to create a new system of government, usually by force. As to when it is all right to revolt, accept reasonable answers.

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:

    • Key ideas about why Americans decided to break away from England.
    • Key ideas about what the declaration was.

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:

    1. In 1775, most members of Congress did not want to break away from England. What happened to change their minds?
      Congress appealed to the king, but the king responded with force (sending troops and warships). Also, very persuasive people like Jefferson argued for independence.
    2. Why did Jefferson say Congress “mangled” his writing? Do you agree?
      Congress removed about 25 percent of his original words. Accept reasoned responses to the second question. Look for: Removing Jefferson’s attack on the slave trade seemed to go against the idea that “all men are created equal.”
    3. At the end of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” What would you pledge your life, fortune, and honor to support today? Why?
      Accept any reasoned response. Students should state and support their answers.

Other questions to raise:

    • What was Parliament?
      The elected government in England. Parliament ruled alongside the king.
    • What in the reading shows you that independence was important to the American colonists?
      By 1776, there were many declarations of independence. Most colonies had their own declarations even before the most famous Declaration of Independence.
    • Why was Jefferson chosen to write the Declaration of Independence?
      He had been a respected leader in Virginia, and Virginia elected him to the Continental Congress. The others on the committee to write the declaration were too busy to write it.
    • What did Jefferson write it was “necessary” for the Americans to do?
      To break away from England. The declaration says to “dissolve the political bands” between America and England.
    • What did Jefferson say the people have the right to do?
      They have the right to change the government when it abuses their rights.
    • How did Jefferson describe the government of England in the declaration?
      He described the king as an “unfit” ruler. He also said that Parliament had been destroying Americans’ rights.
    • Why was it such a big step for Congress to approve the declaration on July 4, 1776?
      It gave the American colonies no choice now but to fight the English troops and warships sent by King George. England would not accept the declaration without a fight.

Day Two

I.   Focus Discussion

A. Review with students what they learned in the last session. Questions to raise:

    • Why did Americans decided to break away from England?
      Look for: British Parliament passed many laws that the colonist thought were unfair, the British sent soldiers to intimidate colonists and threaten with force against any open protest.
    • What was the Declaration of Independence?
      It was a document, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, sent to King George III and Parliament notifying them that the Americas will no longer be governed as British colonies.

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:

    • What rights does Jefferson write about in the Declaration of Independence? What does each of these rights mean?
      The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life is the right to live, liberty is the right to be free, and the pursuit of happiness means freedom of opportunity (to choose your own way in life) and the duty to help those in need.
    • Jefferson said these rights were “unalienable.”  What does this mean?
      They cannot be taken away from anyone or even sold or given away.
    • Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal.”  What did he mean by this? Explain.
      “All men are created equal” means that everyone has equal rights.

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:

  • Why it is important to talk about the declaration in your own words?
    Accept any reasonable responses. Possible responses may include: We still have rights today. Even though we don’t have a king over us today, the government should not be able to take away our rights. Our democracy is still based on the ideas in the declaration.
  • Do you think most Americans today know what the key terms in the Declaration mean? Why or why not?
    Accept any reasonable responses.

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.