American Portraits

We Hold These Truths: Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and Identity

In this lesson, students will learn about Thomas Jefferson and the writing of the Declaration of Independence in order to understand their identity.

Founding Principles

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image

Liberty

Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Narrative

In mid-June 1776, 33-year-old Virginian Thomas Jefferson was given a monumental task to complete. Leading American statesmen gathered in Congress in Philadelphia had created a committee of five individuals, made up of Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and John Adams. Their job was to draft a declaration of independence. Adams insisted that Jefferson write the document, later stating, “I had a great opinion of the elegance of his pen.”…

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can your knowledge and experiences affect your identity?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about Thomas Jefferson and the writing of the Declaration of Independence in order to understand their identity.

Objectives

  • Students will understand how knowledge and experience affects one’s identity.
  • Students will analyze Thomas Jefferson’s identity related to writing the Declaration of Independence.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of their own identity in actions in their own lives.

Background

During the 1760s and 1770s, the American colonists asserted that they had certain rights as Englishmen and as free human beings. In 1775, they went to war to defend those rights and liberties against what they considered to be British tyranny. In 1776, more and more important American statesmen, ordinary citizens, and soldiers argued for independence from Great Britain. Several factors propelled the Americans toward independence.

  • American and British troops had fought the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, and a massive British fleet was preparing to invade New York.
  • In January 1776, Thomas Paine electrified the colonists with his pamphlet, Common Sense, in which he justified independence.
  • On May 15, 1776, expressing the idea of popular sovereignty—the belief that authority resides in the people—Congress had called on the individual colonies to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents.” This call to the colonies had a preamble written by John Adams, which declared, “It is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said Crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people.”

On June 7, 1776, Virginian Richard Henry Lee rose in Congress and proposed a resolution that read, “That these United States are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” The resolution sparked a vigorous debate, and Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence that included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was chosen to write the document because he was known to be an excellent writer, and firmly committed to the cause of liberty and self-government.

Vocabulary

  • Tyranny
  • Statesmen
  • Natural rights
  • Republic
  • Fleet
  • Popular sovereignty
  • Constituents
  • Compact
  • Resolution
  • Absolved
  • Allegiance
  • Dissolved
  • Vigorous
  • Tutelage
  • Incisive
  • Logical
  • Persuasive
  • Grievances
  • Sentiment
  • Eloquently
  • Felicity
  • Unabating
  • Enlightenment
  • Chagrin
  • Sullenly
  • Assuage
  • Whittling
  • Endowed
  • Deriving
  • Mutually

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Jefferson’s identity as he penned the Declaration? How did that role continue to remain a part of his identity until his death and in his legacy since then?
  • Why was Jefferson called upon to write the document above other great leaders on the committee such as John Adams or Benjamin Franklin?
  • What experiences and knowledge did Jefferson have that helped him write a persuasive Declaration?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • What civic and/or moral virtues did the individual exhibit? How and why did the individual exhibit these moral and/or civic virtues in facing and overcoming their challenges?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same way under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Allen, Danielle. Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. New York: Liveright, 2014.
  • Arnn, Larry P. The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.
  • Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage, 1997.
  • Spalding, Matthew. We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009.

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