Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover questions 8 and 9.
Which of the following is not something the Declaration of Independence did?
A. Declare America free from British control
B. Declare that all men are created equal
C. Declare natural rights and individual freedoms
D. Declare that Americans would have a president instead of a king
What did the Declaration of Independence do?
A. Solidify our relationship with Great Britain.
B. Announce trading plans with Great Britain.
C. Declare our independence from France’s political control.
D. Declare our independence from Great Britain’s political control.
In 1776 the Declaration of Independence announced the independence of the 13 colonies from Great Britain. This was because, according to the Declaration, humans are “endowed by their Creator” with “certain unalienable rights,” especially “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and Great Britain was not respecting the natural rights of the colonists. The Declaration explains that the very purpose of government is to protect these rights. Furthermore, it says that the people have the right to “alter or abolish” governments to protect these rights, and even to rebel against a government that systematically and consistently violates the people’s rights.
The colonists did not take revolution lightly, and the Second Continental Congress thought it important to explain why they were breaking from Great Britain. As the Declaration of Independence explains, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that [revolutionaries] should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Thus, through the Declaration, they “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
The colonists had “Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms,” in the Olive Branch Petition in 1775 for example, but their “repeated Petitions [were] answered only by repeated injury.” This sustained refusal is why the colonists concluded that they were justified in turning to rebellion, as a last resort, to create new governments that would better protect their rights.
Most of the Declaration of Independence looks familiar, chronicling that “history of repeated injuries and usurpations.” Indeed, the last two-thirds of it has very similar content to the Declaration and Resolves prepared by the First Continental Congress in 1774. Like the Olive Branch petition, it offered an extended legal indictment of all the ways that the British government usurped local power rightly belonging to the colonies and violated civil liberties. In these earlier documents, the colonists appealed to the king to protect their traditional British liberties from a government they believed no longer took them seriously.
But the Declaration of Independence became famous for what was different. Whereas the Declaration and Resolves had rooted its objections in British laws and legal traditions, with a nod to natural law and natural rights, the Declaration of Independence flipped this emphasis, laying out the grounds for legitimate government in lines that became the basic explanation of the American political philosophy:
“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.”
Getting everyone on board with the Declaration of Independence -- and then later with the Constitution of the United States -- was not an easy task. To put it mildly, not everyone wanted the same thing. Convincing people to change their mind is often a challenge, but a solid persuasive speech can help matters considerably. In this activity, students will write a persuasive speech designed to convince the audience to support (or not support!) adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
- Provide the students with the following materials:
- Writing a Persuasive Speech
- Planning sheet
- Declaration of Independence
- Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give me Death” Speech (optional)
- A rubric is available if this is a graded activity
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes a rubric.
- Divide the class into pairs based on the students’ individual levels. 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 who have mastered the material and are prepared to extend their knowledge. Pair those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- This can also be an individual activity.
- Explain that they are to prepare a short (3-4 minute) persuasive speech where they will argue for or against independence from Great Britain.
- Provide each group with the necessary materials.
- Review the guidelines for writing a speech as well as the format of the planning sheet.
- If necessary, brainstorm with the class on reasons that people might or might not want independence from Great Britain.
- Since the Declaration of Independence lists the crimes of the king against the colonies, it will be a useful resource as the students prepare their arguments.
- Provide each group with the necessary materials.
- As part of preparation, and to provide an example, you may opt to provide them with a copy of Patrick Henry’s speech and have someone (dramatically) read it aloud. If you do, then use these discussion prompts:
- What makes this speech so effective?
- At what points do you see logos, pathos, and ethos? Are any of the three missing?
- Does his speech follow the template provided, or does he deviate from it? When might it be acceptable to sometimes deviate from guidelines? When is it not acceptable?
- Provide students with time to develop their speeches. Even if the students are working individually, encourage them to brainstorm and work together.
- Circulate throughout the room to help students as needed and check for understanding.
- When the students have completed the worksheet, invite some or all of them to present their speeches. Make sure that you have speeches from both sides.
Declaration of Independence
Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give me Death” speech
Writing a Persuasive Speech
The Declaration of Independence was not the start of the American Revolution. Rather, it was a document commissioned a year after fighting began, once the colonists realized that reconciliation was impossible and that they would have to justify separation from Britain. While the Declaration importantly describes many of the civil liberties Americans later codified in their state and federal constitutions, it is most famous for explaining the political philosophy of the United States.
The Declaration of Independence largely did two things: it listed important rights, and argued that a government that systematically and consistently violated those rights forfeited its legitimate authority. What were the rights the Declaration said were inalienable? What government did the colonists declare independence from for violating them?
The Declaration of Independence was not an original document -- at least not in the sense that such notions had never before been articulated. Jefferson drew not only from the recent Virginia Declaration of Rights by George Mason but also the works of philosophers, such as Montesquieu or Locke, as he presented notions of what a government should look like and the natural rights and social contract that underlay it. But, as James Madison pointed out, the Declaration was “to assert, not to discover the truth.” What were the colonists asserting? What acts by the British led to this assertion and why?