Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover question 79.
Q79: When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?
A. April 19, 1775
B. July 4, 1776
C. August 4, 1776
D. June 17, 1775
In a letter to Abigail Adams, John Adams, who arguably did the most lobbying of the Continental Congress to accept independence-- said that “[Independence Day] will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
He mailed that letter on July 3—saying that is how we would commemorate July 2, 1776.
July 2? Well, that was when the Second Continental Congress actually voted to declare independence, accepting Virginian Richard Henry Lee’s short declaration that “these United Colonies 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 That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances., [and] a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.”
But because the continental congress had been anticipating this vote and considered Lee’s proposal for about a month, it had arranged to have a Committee of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston draft a more comprehensive justification. After approving the Lee Resolution, the Congress considered and edited the draft of the Declaration of Independence, which it approved two days later. That date—not independence itself—came to be what Americans celebrate on July 4th. So, in a sense, as the revolutionary historian Pauline Maier observed in an important 1997 article, what we end up celebrating is not Independence Day, but Declaration of Independence Day.
In a further irony, as Maier notes, Americans were not that invested in the Declaration initially, viewing it less as a revolutionary document, as many do today, and instead as a recapitulation of the grievances Americans had raised before. Only later did the document itself come to be a central part of the American project.
The Declaration of Independence did not simply appear in its final version. Instead, Jefferson worked on it himself for days, then ran it by Franklin and Adams, who made several changes. After that, it was approved by the rest of the drafting committee (Sherman and Livingston), and then taken up by the Continental Congress, who similarly made alterations. In this exercise, students will do a scavenger hunt looking for differences between the versions, learning about the revision process.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes annotated copies of both drafts showing the changes made to serve as answer keys.
- Divide the class into pairs. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material; Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge.
- This can also work as an individual assignment
- Explain to the students that they will be looking for changes between versions of the Declaration of Independence. Explain that they are to read the documents and that each group member should annotate their copy—both what changes were made (what additions and what deletions), and why you think they were made. In highlighting changes, have the students cross out language deleted from an earlier version, and underline those which are added.
- If you wish, you might subdivide the documents further, having students compare the first two pages or last two pages; conversely, you can make it a two-day exercise by having students compare first the version 1 to version 2 and then version 2 to version 3.
- Give groups the versions of the Declaration that they will compare (version 1 and 2, or version 2 and 3)
- Provide the groups/pairs with time to annotate and discuss; 15-25 minutes depending on the class and the amount of content to annotate.
- At the end of the activity, have the students share the significant changes that they found, and use those to facilitate a class discussion.
- Questions you might ask: which changes are most significant? Why do they think that either Franklin/Adams or the Continental Congress made those changes? Which changes improved Jefferson’s draft? Which, if any, made it worse? Which should Congress have made, or not?
The Declaration of Independence went through a few edits prior to its adoption by Congress. After Jefferson wrote the first draft, it was edited by committee members as well as Congress. The changes did not affect the core philosophy of the document, however, which was the assertion that mankind had certain natural rights, that no one had the divine right to rule another because all were created equal, and that the British government, in denying those rights and usurping the local self-government of the colonies, had forfeited its legitimacy in ruling.
Jefferson and his team wrote the Declaration rather quickly—Congress requested a draft on June 11 and read it on June 28. Congress worked on the wording for a few days, before adopting the final version. When was the Declaration of Independence adopted? Why is this date significant in American history? What does it symbolize?
Technically, Congress voted for independence on July 2—which was the date that John Adams believed would be the famous day celebrating independence. However, rather than that day, Americans eventually celebrated July 4th, on which the Declaration, which explained the justifications for independence and the purpose of government, was adopted. Which date do you think is more important—the date of independence, or the date explaining what America stood for? Why? Use other historic or current events in your answer.