History Experience Lesson 3: The Declarations Ideas

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This two–day lesson (with an optional third day) examines the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the controversy surrounding slavery.

On day one, students read a short article on the declaration and engage in a discussion on its key ideas and the contradictions between its ideals and slavery.

On day two, working in small groups, students create a poster to demonstrate their understanding of key ideas expressed in the document and express why they think these ideas are important today. The practice of creating the poster will also introduce them to the type of project they will create for the History Experience.


Students will be able to:

  1. Identify and describe the ideas of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
  2. Explain the contradictions between ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence and the institution of slavery.
  3. Determine the most important ideas about government from the Declaration of Independence and discuss why these ideas are important today.
  4. Create and present a poster to demonstrate their understanding of key ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and to educate and persuade others of the importance of these ideas today.
  5. Practice the skills needed for the History Experience project.

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

Handout 3A: The Declaration’s Ideas — 1 per student.

Handout 3B: Posters of Democracy — 1 per student.

Supplies: Chart paper or poster paper and colored markers.

(Optional) Handout 3C: Vocabulary List — 1 per student.
Assign students look up the vocabulary before beginning the lesson or you can make a chart of the vocabulary terms on the board or on poster paper and fill in the chart as the class participates in the discussions throughout lesson.


Day One

I.   Reading and Discussion — The Declaration’s Ideas

A. Explain that Jefferson got many of his ideas from other thinkers. Philosophers in Europe had thought of the idea that government had the purpose of protecting the rights of citizens. Jefferson read these philosophers’ books and believed strongly in their ideas.

Explain that one reason why the declaration was so historic was that it took all those philosophers’ ideas and put them into action. For the first time in history, a country was declaring itself independent based on the idea that the people should have basic rights and freedom.

B.  Tell students that they are going to read about the ideas in the Declaration of Independence. As they read, they need to look for:

    • Key ideas that Jefferson put into the Declaration of Independence.
    • Key ideas regarding slavery in America.

C.  Distribute Handout 3A: The Declaration’s Ideas and explain that after they read, they will discuss the key ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the contradictions regarding slavery.

D.  When students finish reading, hold a discussion using the For Discussion and Writing questions at the end of the reading:

    • John Locke influenced Jefferson’s writing. Explain Locke’s idea about the contract between government and the people.
      The government agrees to protect the people’s rights. The people, in turn, agree to obey the law. But the more a government abuses (or denies) the people’s rights, the more right the people have to resist and even change the government.
    • What do you think slaves would have thought about the phrase “all men are created equal”?
      Accept reasoned responses. Students might point out that slavery contradicted all men being equal and having unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. John Locke thought “property” included self-ownership. Jefferson agreed, and yet Jefferson owned slaves.
    • Do you see any differences between what people today believe and what they do? What are those differences? Why do you think they exist?
      Accept any reasoned response. Students should state and support their answers.

Other questions to raise:

    • Who was John Locke? What ideas did Jefferson learn from Locke?
      John Locke was an English writer of the Enlightenment. Jefferson learned the basic ideas expressed in the declaration from Locke, such as “unalienable rights,” “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that government should be based on the “consent of the governed.”
    • What ideas about government does Thomas Jefferson write about in the Declaration of Independence?
      The most basic idea is that government is run for the people, not for the rulers; it relies on the “consent of the governed.” Students should also note that government is supposed to protect people’s natural rights and that if government violates these rights, the people have the right to change the government. They even have the right to overthrow the government if government becomes too abusive.
    • In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson said that government should protect people’s rights. Why do you think the protection of rights was so important to Jefferson’s ideas about government?
      Jefferson believed that the goal of government was to ensure everyone’s freedom. Students should also note that one of the main reasons that the colonists went to war was because the British had abused their rights and Jefferson wanted to make plain that no government should do this.

Day Two

I.   Small-Group Activity:  Posters for Democracy

A.  Tell students that they are going to get a chance to think about the purpose of our government and the importance of individual rights. Tell them they will get to share their thoughts with others.

Explain that there is growing concern that many people today take for granted or don’t even think about the ideas behind our democratic government. Distribute Handout 3B: Posters for Democracy and read the introduction to the activity with the students.

B.  Divide the class into small groups (three or four students each) and go over the steps the groups will complete to create and present their posters. Remind the groups how much time they will have to complete the assignment.

C.  Provide materials to each group: chart paper or poster paper and markers.

II. Group Presentations and Debriefing

A.  Ask each group to present its poster. After each presentation, engage the presenters and class in a discussion about the presentation. Raise questions such as:

    • Was the information they presented about the Declaration of Independence accurate?
    • What ideas did this group seem to think were most important?
    • How did the group decide what the most important ideas were?
    • What did this group do to try to make its poster persuasive? Interesting?    

B.  After all groups have presented, engage students in a discussion on the ideas of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Raise questions such as:

    • What is the reasoning behind our government according to the Declaration of Independence?
      Government is not for the rulers, but for the people. Government should protect the basic (natural, God-given) rights of the people. If a government does not respect the rights of the people, or does not represent their interests, the people should change the government.
    • If you were placed in the same position as Thomas Jefferson, trying to explain what a good government should be, are there other ideas you would include based on what we know about our society today? Are there any of Jefferson’s ideas you would not include?
      Students should state and support their opinions.

C.  Day Three (Optional). Any additional time needed for students to present their posters or debrief the activity can take place during an optional third day.

D. Poster Display. To culminate this activity, students’ posters may be displayed in your classroom and around the school.

III. History Experience Planner

This lesson provides students with another 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 3: Declaration of Independence Timeline as homework. To complete the log students can review textbook or go to the History Experience Research Links.