Teaching the Declaration of Independence. ERIC
by Patrick, John J.
The Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the United
States of America. It is part of the social studies core curriculum in
schools throughout the United States. Students, by the time they graduate
from high school, are expected to know the main ideas in the Declaration
of Independence and their significance in the American heritage. This Digest
discusses (1) the origins of the Declaration of Independence, (2) the structure
and key ideas of the document, (3) how to teach the document, and (4) World
Wide Web sites on the document for teachers and learners.
ORIGINS OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.
During June and July of 1776, the main question facing the Second Continental
Congress at Philadelphia revolved around independence: should the American
colonies represented at this Congress declare their separation and freedom
from the United Kingdom of Great Britain? After intense debate, the delegates
voted on July 2, 1776 in favor of Richard Henry Lee's resolution for independence.
On July 4, the Congress discussed and approved, with a few changes, the
formal Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson on behalf
of a five-person committee appointed by Congress (Maier 1997; McClellan
During July and August 1776, the Declaration of Independence was printed
and distributed throughout the newly proclaimed United States of America.
Americans recognized immediately that this document expressed widely held
ideas about the proper purposes of government and the rights of individuals.
George Mason expressed the same ideas about government and rights in similar
words in Articles I-III of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was
drafted and approved a few weeks before the Declaration of Independence.
Many years later Jefferson acknowledged that the Declaration of Independence
was "intended to be an expression of the American mind" and not an original
or innovative statement (Schechter 1990, 138-145; Spalding 2002, 79).
STRUCTURE AND KEY IDEAS.
The Declaration of Independence can be divided into four main parts.
The first part is an introduction that states the purpose of the document,
which was to explain why the American people were declaring independence
from the government of Great Britain.
The second part is a theory of good government and individual rights
generally accepted by Americans from the 1770s until today. In this theory,
all individuals are equal in their possession of certain immutable rights.
These rights are not granted by the government. Rather, they are inherent
to human nature. Therefore, the first purpose of a good government is to
secure or protect these rights. Further, a good government is based on
the consent of the governed -- the people -- who are the sole source of
the government's authority. If their government persistently violates this
theory of good government, then the people have the right to overthrow
The third part of the document is a list of grievances against King
George III, who was singled out to represent the actions of the British
government. These grievances are examples of actions that violated the
criteria for good government stated in the second part of the Declaration
of Independence. These grievances, therefore, justify separation from the
King's bad government and establishment of a good government to replace
The fourth and final part of the document is an unqualified assertion
of sovereignty by the United States of America. It proclaims the determination
of Americans to defend and maintain their independence and rights.
The main ideas of the Declaration of Independence are essential to a
good education for citizenship in the United States. These ideas are common
cords of civic identity by which unity is forged and maintained among the
diverse ethnic, religious, and racial groups within the United States.
Following are five strategies for teaching the Declaration of Independence
through the social studies curriculum in schools.
1. Introduce core ideas of the Declaration of Independence to students
in grades four and five; at these grades they typically study state history
and United States history. Return to the core ideas of the document in
cycles of increasing complexity and depth in middle school and high school
courses in United States history and world history.
2. Teach the document in the context of the American War of Independence
and the founding of the United States of America (Berns 1985).
3. Connect ideas in the document to events and issues in different periods
of United States history from the founding era to the present. For example,
relate the idea of "unalienable rights" to the abolitionist movement of
the 1830s and 1840s, to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and to the
causes and consequences of the Civil War (Jaffa 2000). Connect ideas in
the Declaration of Independence to struggles for equal justice under law
of the civil rights movement of African Americans and to the women's rights
movement (Pyne and Sesso 1995).
4. Connect ideas in the document to events and issues in modern world
history that pertain to the advancement of democracy and human rights in
different parts of the world. For example, examine the influence of the
Declaration of Independence on the democratic revolutions in various countries
during the 19th and 20th centuries. Show the influence of the Declaration
of Independence on the Preamble of the 1948 "Universal Declaration of Human
Rights" of the United Nations. Finally, examine with the students the impact
of ideas in the Declaration of Independence on the worldwide human rights
movement, which began in the latter half of the 20th century (Adler 1987).
5. Discuss with students the global prospects for democracy and individual
rights predicted by Thomas Jefferson in 1826, the year of the 50th anniversary
of the Declaration of Independence. On June 24, 1826, Jefferson wrote,
"May it be to the world what I believe it will be, to some parts sooner,
to others later, but finally to all, the signal . . . to assume the blessings
and security of self-government . . . All eyes are opened or opening to
the rights of man" (Schechter 1990, 448). Investigate with students events
in the global history of democracy and human rights that exemplify Jefferson's
prediction. Speculate with students about the prospects for democracy and
human rights in the 21st century. Finally, emphasize that the Declaration
of Independence has global significance because it set a standard for liberty
and justice under law to which all people in the world may aspire.
WORLD WIDE WEB SITES.
Resources for teaching and learning about the Declaration of Independence
and events and documents related to it are available at the following Web
* U.S. Founding Documents. This site, a project of the law school of
Emory University, includes copies of the Declaration of Independence and
related documents of the founding era. www.law.emory.edu/FEDERAL/
* National Archives and Records Administration: Digital Classroom, Teaching
with Documents. This site contains reproducible copies of primary documents
and teaching activities based on documents pertaining to periods of U.S.
history from the American Revolution to the present. www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/teaching_with_documents.html
* The Founders' Almanac: Primary Documents of the Founding. This site,
established by the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, introduces and
explains the Declaration of Independence and other great documents of the
American founding era. www.heritage.org/research/features/almanac/documents.html
* The American Revolution and Its Era, 1750-1789. This site from the
Library of Congress American Memory collections contains documents about
the founding of the United States. lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/collections/revolt/index.html
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list of resources includes references used to prepare
this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are available in microfiche
and/or paper copies from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS).
For information about prices, contact EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road, Suite
110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852; World Wide Web: edrs.com; telephone
numbers are (703) 440-1400 and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an EJ
number, annotated monthly in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE),
are not available through EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal
section of most larger libraries by using the bibliographic information
provided, requested through Interlibrary Loan, or ordered from commercial
Adler, Mortimer. "We Hold These Truths." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 69 (December
1987): 268-274. EJ 363 377.
Berns, Walter. "Teaching the Founding of the United States." TEACHING
POLITICAL SCIENCE 13 (Fall 1985): 5-12. EJ 330 536.
Bonevac, Daniel. "The Forgotten Principles." TEXAS EDUCATION REVIEW
1 (Spring 2000): 5-9. EJ 625 856.
Jaffa, Harry V. A NEW BIRTH OF FREEDOM: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE COMING
OF THE CIVIL WAR. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.
Maier, Pauline. AMERICAN SCRIPTURE: MAKING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
McClellan, James. LIBERTY, ORDER, AND JUSTICE: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE
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for Judicial Studies, 1989. ED 375 026.
National Archives. "OUR LIVES, OUR FORTUNES, AND OUR SACRED HONOR."
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. Washington, DC: The National Archives
and Records Administration, 1993. ED 364 452.
National Endowment for the Humanities. DECLARE THE CAUSES: THE DECLARATION
OF INDEPENDENCE -- UNDERSTANDING ITS STRUCTURE AND ORIGIN. Washington,
DC: National Endowment for the Humanities, 2001. ED 455 517.
Patrick, John J., Ed. FOUNDING THE REPUBLIC: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. ED 393 739.
Pyne, John, and Gloria Sesso. "The Declaration of Independence: To What
Extent Did It Have Meaning for African Americans." OAH MAGAZINE OF HISTORY
9 (Spring 1995): 36-45. EJ 512 764.
Schechter, Stephen L., Ed. ROOTS OF THE REPUBLIC: AMERICAN FOUNDING
DOCUMENTS INTERPRETED. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1990.
Spalding, Matthew. THE FOUNDERS' ALMANAC: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO THE NOTABLE
EVENTS, GREATEST LEADERS, AND MOST ELOQUENT WORDS OF THE AMERICAN FOUNDING.
Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2002.