Being An American
The Declaration of Independence
One fifty-minute class period
In this lesson, students will explore the structure, purpose, and significance of the Declaration of Independence. Students will analyze the concepts of inalienable or natural rights and government by consent to begin to understand the philosophical foundations of America’s constitutional government
Consent of the Governed
The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.
Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.
Inalienable / Natural Rights
Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
In this lesson, students will explore the structure, purpose, and significance of the Declaration of Independence. Focusing on the most famous phrases of the Declaration from the Introduction and the Conclusion, students will analyze the concepts of inalienable rights and government by consent. Finally, students will begin to understand the philosophical foundations of America’s constitutional government.
The object of the Declaration of Independence…[was] not 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. … it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. - Thomas Jefferson
On the distinctive principles of the Government ...of the United States, the best guides are to be found in...the Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental Act of Union of these States. - James Madison
Critical Engagement Questions
What does the Declaration of Independence reveal about American ideals?
- Examine the famous phrases of the Declaration of Independence.
- Understand the purpose and structure of the Declaration of Independence.
- Analyze the concept of inalienable rights.
- Analyze the concept of the social compact and government by consent.
- Appreciate the American ideals of liberty and government by consent.
CCE (5-8): IA2, IB1, IIA1, IIC1, IID1
CCE (9-12): IA2-3, IIB1, IIA1, IID1
NCHS (5-12): Era 3, Standard 1B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
- Handout A: Declaration Scavenger Hunt Slips
- The Declaration of Independence (Appendix A)
- Handout B: The Structure of the Declaration
- Handout C: Key Excerpts
- Handout D: A Note on the Signers (optional)
Background 10 minutes the day before
Cut out and distribute Handout A: Declaration Scavenger Hunt Slips. For homework, have students find out how the person, idea or item on their slip was/is related to the Declaration of Independence.
Warm-up 10 minutes
- Have students share their responses to the Declaration Scavenger Hunt Slips as a large group.
- Divide the class into pairs or trios. Distribute the Declaration of Independence (Appendix A) and Handout B: the Structure of the Declaration to each group. Assign each group one section of the Declaration to focus on; additionally, all groups should do the signature section. Note: You may wish to divide the Indictment section in half between the groups because of its length. Have students skim their sections of the Declaration and record the key ideas for their sections on the Handout. (See Answer Key for suggested responses.)
Activities 30 minutes
- Put up an overhead of Handout B and ask students to share their responses. Once the chart is complete, ask students:
- What is the purpose of each section?
- Why include a long list of grievances?
- What was the reason for pointing out that the colonists had tried to get the King to change the way he treated them?
- Which do you believe is the most important section? Why?
- Tell students you will now focus on some of the most famous phrases of the Declaration of Independence. Distribute and put up an overhead of Handout C: Key Excerpts.
- Have students read the excerpt individually or in small groups, and ask them to underline what they believe are key terms and/or phrases. Then discuss the questions as a large group. (The Answer Key contains suggested responses.)
Wrap-up 10 minutes
Ask students to share their personal responses to the Declaration by discussing as a large group the following questions:
- As Americans, should we be proud of this document?
- What does the Declaration tell the world about the United States?
- Are the ideals expressed in the Declaration outdated, or are they still true today?
- Do these ideals matter to you? If so, how and why?
- Have students read Handout D: A Note on the Signers and answer the critical thinking questions.
- Using Handout B as a guide, have students draw an illustration for each section of the Declaration of Independence. Illustrations should symbolically represent the section’s content and purpose.
- Have students select a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Have them research the person’s biography and prepare that person’s resume to share with the class. Students can begin their research at: http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org
- Have students work in groups of three to investigate ways the Declaration of Independence has been embraced by later individuals throughout American history. How have leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others referenced the Declaration as they worked to expand the blessings of liberty? Groups should create a Declaration Timeline to highlight historical documents and events in which the Declaration played a part.
- Have students use the style and substance of the Declaration to write their own “declaration of independence” from their parents.