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The Declaration of Independence: A Primary Source Analysis

Teacher Guide By Richard Cleggett

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our U.S History Category!

Student Activities for The Declaration of Independence Include:

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in U.S. History, arguably second only to the Constitution itself. A deep understanding of it will illuminate the causes of the American Revolution, and the vision of the Founding Fathers for the new country.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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Preface

American independence begins not only with war and protest, but the Declaration of Independence itself. The Declaration serves as both a official severing of ties with Great Britain for the American colonies, and also a list of grievances detailing why this separation is necessary. It is the culmination of what the colonists had protested for, and against, throughout the years leading up to the American Revolution. Written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, the Declaration is one of the most important and defining documents of our nation’s beginning.

After the Continental Congress had convened with the initial outbreak of war in 1775, its delegates immediately decided to declare their independence from Great Britain, a true attempt at complete sovereignty. By issuing this declaration, they were ensuring not only war with Great Britain, but also the prospect of autonomously controlling their own nation. At its center, it details grievances and issues with King George III, as well as the right to revolution, natural rights, and rights to self governance. To this day, the document is used as a focal point in discussions on human rights.

By analyzing this document, students will be able to connect and explain the motives behind it and its implications for the newly formed nation. Students will also be able to interpret the complex language of the time and to better understand and connect it to today’s political and social world. Using Storyboard That, students can gain a thorough perspective on one of the defining documents of early American history.


Essential Questions for the Declaration of Independence: A Primary Source Analysis

  1. What did the Declaration of Independence do and say?
  2. Why is this document still considered significant today?
  3. What language and ideas were expressed within the Declaration of Independence?
  4. How does the Declaration define American ideas and ideologies?
  5. Why can we consider the Declaration of Independence a defining American document?
  6. What major events, figures, etc. influenced the creation of the Declaration of Independence?

Check out our ELA Analysis of the Declaration of Independence for more information and activities!


The Declaration of Independence Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

The 5 Ws of The Declaration of Independence

In this activity, students will use a spider map to detail the major components of the Declaration of Independence. By detailing the 5 Ws, students will be able to identify and explain who wrote it, why, where, and when it was written, and what the document was saying. The spider map will allow students to gain a holistic perspective of the document itself, almost like a Declaration of Independence summary. Students should be able to also connect major thematic ideas of revolution, rights, and freedoms. You can always reference the 5 Ws of the Declaration of Independence from The American Revolution Teacher Guide.

Example Declaration of Independence 5 Ws


WHO Wrote the Declaration of Independence?


Several key figures of the Revolution wrote, drafted, edited, and composed the document. Among these were John Adams, John Livingston, and Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson, however, would become the primary drafter.

WHAT did the Declaration of Independence Say?


The Declaration stated that "all men are created equal". It further explained that "they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Colonists felt entitled to these freedoms, so they were declaring independence from Great Britain.

WHERE was the Declaration of Independence Written?


The Declaration was written, finalized, and signed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was also here that the Continental Congress would set forth plans for their newly independent nation.

WHEN was the Declaration of Independence Written?


The Declaration was composed by several authors over a series of weeks beginning in May of 1776. However, the finalized draft was issued to the Continental Congress and passed voting on July 2nd, 1776. The finalized draft was sent to publication on July 4th, 1776. Independence Day is celebrated on July 4th every year in the United States.

WHY was the Declaration of Independence Written?


The Declaration was written for several reasons. It first stated the belief of the colonists in natural rights, liberties, and freedoms. It declared independence from Great Britain, while also listing and explaining grievances against the British Empire.


For a more in-depth look, take a look at our ELA teacher guide on the Declaration of Independence!


Extended Activity

Have students analyze and make a spider map on France’s Declarations of the Rights of Man, from 1789. Both declarations come within decades of each other, as France’s revolution and ideas are very much influenced by America’s. Have students identify similarities and differences.


The Declaration of Independence 5 Ws

Example

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Excerpt Analysis on the Declaration of Independence

In this activity, students will use a spider map to detail and explain four or more excerpts, directly from the Declaration of Independence. Through the expansive, detailed cell type within the storyboard, students will organize the excerpts and create a visual interpretation. Students will be able to explain and analyze each excerpt from the document. This will force students to read the document verbatim and put the documents words into their own language.



Excerpt Analysis
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." This excerpt is one of the most recognizable in the English language. It declares that all men are born with natural rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The declaration will expand off this, stating how these rights were violated by Great Britain.
"The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States." This excerpt states the negative connotations and feelings towards King George III by the colonists. His repeated "injuries and usurpations" against them have directly prevented them from leading the lives they've desired. Therefore, he is a tyrannical, unjust ruler.
"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government..." This excerpt declares that if a government does not work, it is the people's right to change it or get rid of it. This means that because Great Britain's monarchical government is causing oppression, the colonists have the right to overthrow it and create a new, better government.
"We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America...That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States..." This excerpt is a literal example within the Declaration declaring freedom and independence. Because of the repeated injuries and oppressive nature against the colonies, the United States should be free. This is to ensure they dictate their lives, not Great Britain.


Extended Activity

Have students select four or more excerpts from France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, using a similar, spider map storyboard. Students should again attempt to draw comparisons from a contextual perspective, identifying similar language or ideas. Students should connect these ideas with that of the Declaration and American Revolution.


The Declaration of Independence Excerpt Analysis

Example

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Leading to the Declaration of Independence Timeline

Using a timeline layout, students will outline the events leading to the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Teachers can pre-select events for students to choose from, or students may choose their own. Protests, boycotts, and major figures are all items that could be included. Students will be able to explain and analyze how events unfolded leading to the creation of the Declaration. This activity will also provide students with a broader historical perspective on events. Reference the timeline activities in both Events to the Revolution and The American Revolution Teacher Guides for more in-depth ideas.


Example Timeline

1754 - 1763

French and Indian War

The British and French battled for control over the North American territory in what is known as the Seven Years War, or French and Indian War. The war began in 1754, lasting until 1763 with British victory and control.
October 7, 1763

Proclamation of 1763

The Proclamation Act of 1763 was passed, barring all British colonists from expanding and settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. This infuriated and frustrated many ambitious settlers. Tensions began to rise.
March 5, 1770

Boston Massacre

Five Bostonians were killed when violence erupted between British regulars and colonists. The event was further muddled with tension when Paul Revere's political cartoon depicted innocent colonists being gunned down. Opposition to the British increased.
December 16, 1773

Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party is an act of protest from colonists when they drop tons of tea into Boston Harbor in opposition to Britain's Tea Act of 1773. Taxes against local merchants pushed colonists to reject the attempted tea monopoly, as well as British control.
April 19 1775

Battle of Lexington and Concord

Tensions and violence reached a pinnacle when British regulars battled American colonists in what was the first battle of the American Revolution: Lexington and Concord. The colonists fared well, running the British back to Boston. War, however, was far from over.
July 4, 1776

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

As the war escalated, delegates from the 13 colonies met as the First Continental Congress. At the Second, the delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence, signifying their severing of ties with Great Britain. It was an act of treason, but of great significance to America.


Extended Activity

Have students research and create a timeline about events in France that led to the creation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Have students compare and contrast the grievances and issues that led to both documents.


Signing of the Declaration of Independence Timeline

Example

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Connective Grid Analysis: Excerpts, Rationale, and Modern Wording

Using a grid storyboard, have students analyze excerpts from the Declaration of Independence text. Have students use one axis of the grid to put a specific excerpt, one for their rationale on that excerpt, and finally what it could mean in “modern wording”. By using a grid, students will be able to analyze and synthesize what they think the Declaration is saying, what it means, and what it could mean today.



Excerpt 1

"In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

Modern Wording

If we are going to try and try again to gain rights we've petitioned for, and receive no answer or positive results, we can only define the king as a tyrant. Not only that, but he cannot rule over free people.


Rationale

The rationale of this excerpt is that a ruler who takes on traits indicative of unfit rule (or tyranny), cannot then rule a free people. Despite colonists repeated attempts to democratically ask for change, they've been met with more oppression.


Excerpt 2


"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..."

Modern Wording

All of us are in this together! We should declare independence, and have NO ties to Great Britain whatsoever! Therefore, we take back our allegiance, and from this day on, we will be one united, independent, and free nation!


Rationale

The rationale of this excerpt is that the colonies officially are severing ties to Great Britain. They should be free, and more so, independent. Only by cutting ties with their mother country can they be free.


Excerpt 3

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them..."

Modern Wording

Over time, it becomes obvious two groups must separate; whether it be over ideas or governments. One thing is certain: natural law and powers supersede all. When those are threatened, one must be able to assume their own destiny, as Nature intended.


Rationale

The rationale of this excerpt is that people need to break away from others in order to preserve laws and rights entitled to them naturally. Therefore, having an independent nation is what will preserve these rights and natural laws.



Extended Activity

Have students utilize the same grid storyboard setup for France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. Using the same ideas, students should break down specific excerpts for the Declaration, and apply to their own rationale. Instead of modern day wording, have students connect each excerpt to the American Declaration by comparing and contrasting it.


Declaration of Independence - Connective Grid

Example

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What does the Declaration of Independence Mean to Me?

In this activity, students will use a grid storyboard to detail excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and what it means to them. The significance should stem from a historically based opinion, supporting the wording of the document with factually correct ideas. By putting excerpts alongside student’s interpretation, deeper analysis and discussion can take place. Students will be able to analyze and explain what each excerpt they select from the Declaration means to them, while also analyzing the language, text, and major ideas from the document itself.


Example Responses

"Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. "


Time and time again, the colonists and colonies have suffered. They now need to change their government in order to preserve what they deem is right. I agree with this, because tyranny prevents freedoms, and that can cause injury in many ways.


"He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries."

King George III even controls judges. He controls their time in office and even their compensation. I think this could greatly alter judges decisions and the decision-making process, to the detriment of the colonists. Fairness is needed in court, not control.


"Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. "


They don't want to fight, but they've tried to warn the British. This shows the issues have built up over time. The King cannot take away freedoms from across an ocean. I agree that a ruler should not control people so geographically far away.



Extended Activity

Have students select excerpts from France’s Declaration of Rights of Man, and connect what it might mean to them with how it was influenced by the American Declaration of Independence. This will again allow deeper analysis as well as a connective force between two seminal documents.

The Declaration of Independence - What the Words Mean to Me

Example

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•   (English) The Declaration of Independence   •   (Español) La Declaración de Independencia   •   (Français) La Déclaration D'indépendance   •   (Deutsch) Die Unabhängigkeitserklärung   •   (Italiana) La Dichiarazione di Indipendenza   •   (Nederlands) De Onafhankelijkheidsverklaring   •   (Português) A Declaração de Independência   •   (עברית) הצהרת העצמאות   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) إعلان الاستقلال   •   (हिन्दी) आज़ादी की घोषणा   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Декларация Независимости   •   (Dansk) Uafhængighedserklæringen   •   (Svenska) Självständighetsförklaringen   •   (Suomi) Itsenäisyysjulistus   •   (Norsk) Uavhengighetserklæringen   •   (Türkçe) Bağımsızlık Beyannamesi   •   (Polski) Deklaracja Niepodległości   •   (Româna) Declaratia de Independenta   •   (Ceština) Deklarace Nezávislosti   •   (Slovenský) Deklarácia Nezávislosti   •   (Magyar) A Függetlenségi Nyilatkozat   •   (Hrvatski) Izjava o Neovisnosti   •   (български) Декларацията за Независимост   •   (Lietuvos) Nepriklausomybės Deklaracija   •   (Slovenščina) Deklaracija o Neodvisnosti   •   (Latvijas) Neatkarības Deklarācija   •   (eesti) Iseseisvusdeklaratsiooni