The Declaration of Independence Causes

The Declaration of Independence Causes

American colonists forced the British Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766 but in the succeeding years, similar taxes were levied by British Parliament and protested by many Americans.

The nature and the extent of legislative authorities of the British Parliament
Nature and the extent of legislative authorities of the British Parliament, 1773 – source

The American Revolution brewed in a context of Americans’ concern over contemporary events as well as awareness of historic precedents. Mindful of both, the founding fathers created the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, in which the colonies declared their freedom from the British Crown.

The repeal, or the funeral procession of Miss Americ-Stamp in London
The repeal, or the funeral procession of Miss Americ-Stamp in London, 1765 – source

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Complaints, Complaints…

Discuss with students that you have overheard them, at times, make various complaints about the treatment of young people. Complaints not unlike those motivated the Founding Fathers at the time of the American Revolution. Give the students a short time, in small groups, to list complaints they have about the treatment of young people.

The complaints should be of a general nature (for example recess should be longer, fourth graders should be able to see PG videos, etc.). Collect the list. Choose complaints to share with the class, so you can guide the discussion to follow. Save the lists for future reference. There are moments when all of us are more eager to express what’s wrong than we are to think critically about the problem and possible solutions. There is no reason to think people were any different in 1776. It’s important to understand the complaints of the colonists as one step in a process involving careful deliberation and attempts to redress grievances.

Ask questions to help your students consider their concerns in a deliberate way. WHO makes the rules they don’t like, WHO decides if they are fair or not, HOW does one get them changed, WHAT does it mean to be independent from the rules, and finally, HOW does a group of people declare that they will no longer follow the rules?

Activity 2. So, What are You Going to Do About It?

Ask the students to imagine that, in hopes of effecting some changes, they are going to compose a document based on their complaints to be sent to the appropriate audience. As they begin to compose their document, they should consider the following questions. (Note to the teacher: The following questions correspond to the sections of the Declaration, as noted in parentheses, which will be discussed later. This discussion serves as a prewriting activity for the writing assignment.)

  • To whom would you send your complaints? Why? What reasons would you give for your decision to write out your complaints? (Preamble)
  • What makes you think your complaints are worthwhile? Aren’t there good reasons why things are the way they are? Why should things as they are being changed? Would it be possible to summarize the thinking behind your desire for change in a single sentence? (statement of beliefs, or the thinking behind the complaints)
  • Is there anything, in particular, the reader should notice about your complaints? Is there anything you need to keep in mind to make sure your audience understands and appreciates your complaints? What kinds of events inspired your complaints? (the list of complaints)
  • Have you already tried to make any changes in the treatment of young people? In what way? (prior attempts to redress grievances)
  • Is it possible to say in a single sentence what it is you want to happen? It would take a time to change the system to accommodate all of your complaints. What should happen right away? (declaration of independence)
  • Who would be willing to sign his/her name to this list of complaints even if it were going to be seen and read by many people? (the signatures)

Activity 3. The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America

The Declaration of Independence was created in an atmosphere of complaints about the treatment of the colonies under British rule. In this unit, students will be given the opportunity to compose a document based on their own complaints; however, the resulting “declarations” might be more convincing if based on some models already proven effective. Provide every student with a transcript of the Declaration. There is no need to do a close reading of the entire document at this point.

The immediate goal is to understand the structure of the document and the basic intent of each section. Discuss the Declaration with students, using the following section-by-section questions help students relate this overview of the Declaration to the previous discussion.

  • Preamble: the reasons for writing down the Declaration (from “WHEN, in the Course of Human Events” to “declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation.”). What reason(s) did the Founding Fathers give for their decision to write out a declaration?
  • Statement of beliefs: specifying what the undersigned believed, the philosophy behind the document (from “We hold these Truths to be self-evident” to “an absolute Tyranny over these States”). What beliefs did the Founding Fathers declare they held?
  • List of complaints: the offenses that impelled the declaration (from “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World” to “unfit to be the ruler of a free people”). What are a few of the complaints? Are any specific events mentioned? If not, is the information given sometimes sufficient to figure out to which events the complaints refer?
  • Statement of prior attempts to redress grievances: (From “Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren,” to “Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”) In what way(s) did the framers claim to have already tried in addressing the complaints?
  • Declaration of Independence: (From “WE, therefore” to “and our sacred Honour.”) What will change in the colonies as a result of the Declaration?
  • The signatures: Which signers do students recognize?

Activity 4. When, in the Course of Human Events…

Working alone or in small groups, students draft their own declarations. The transcript of the Declaration of Independence will serve as a model; student documents should contain the same sections. They should start with their reasons for writing (preamble), as discussed above. Tell students they can model their statement after the Preamble to the Declaration. For example, they can begin with the words “When, in the course of human events …”

Activity 5. What Experience Hath Shown

After a session of work on their declarations, introduce to students the idea of earlier documents that set a precedent for the Declaration. Let students know that the committee members who drafted our Declaration (John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia) were aware of documents from earlier years.

Some of these documents served as models as the committee members wrote the Declaration. Perhaps seeing precedents for the Declaration will help students in composing theirs. Ask students to work in small groups to review some of the earlier documents and find common features between the historical documents and the Declaration. If desired and if_appropriate for your class, this would be a good time to read the entire Declaration.

Students should look at the historical documents for similar structures (the document has a preamble, for instance) or phrases or passages that relate to the Declaration. As they read the excerpts, students should refer to their transcript of the Declaration of Independence.

Students should not attempt close readings of the documents. Instead, they scan key passages for similarities.

  1. The Magna Carta (June 1215). Of structural interest is the preamble and the last section (#63). What differences and similarities do the students notice? Section 1 and Section 12 also have relevant content. The Digital Classroom_offers a digitized copy of the Magna Carta, a translation of a 1297 version, and analysis, “Magna Carta and Its American Legacy.”
  2. The First Charter of Virginia (April 10, 1606). A relevant section begins “And we do also ordain, establish, and agree, for Us, our Heirs, and Successors, that each of the said Colonies shall have a Council” and ends “pass under the Privy Seal of our Realm of England;” a statement of the colonists’ ability to pass laws. Also of interest is the section beginning, “Also we do, for Us, our Heirs, and Successors, DECLARE” to “any other of our said Dominions.”
  3. The Mayflower Compact (November 1621).
  4. The Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 12, 1776), written by George Mason and accessible through The Digital Classroom. Especially relevant are the first three sections.

Activity 6. Share and Declare

Once student groups have analyzed the historical documents that preceded the Declaration of Independence, ask them to share their findings with the rest of the class. In what ways were the earlier documents similar to the Declaration of Independence causes? You may wish to create a display of the information students have uncovered. For example, on a large bulletin board, center the text of the Declaration. Highlight relevant excerpts.

Use a colored strand of yarn to lead from each Declaration excerpt to a posting of the name and date of a related document. Classes with the necessary technology, skill, and computer access can do this same exercise on the computer, creating hyperlinks to the precedents. Students should continue to work on their declarations, either during class or as a homework assignment. They can use what they learned through the study of relevant documents created before the Declaration as a guide for the information they wish to include in their reports. By this time, students should be working on the statement of beliefs and the complaints section of their declarations.

Activity 7. Eighty-Six It: Changes to Jefferson’s Draft

Now students can look at some drafts of the Declaration. Every class should view actual images of these drafts with corrections written in Jefferson’s handwriting. Some classes might benefit from a closer look at the kinds of changes that occurred. The committee and Continental Congress are said to have made a total of 86 changes to the document.

American Memory has a collection of Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789, containing many historical documents, including images and transcripts of original copies of various drafts of the Declaration. Students may be especially interested to view a picture of a fragment of the Declaration and a transcript of the earliest known draft of the Declaration.

You can also access an image_and_transcript_of a later draft of the Declaration. Reading just a small portion of the later draft will demonstrate the significant changes that took place as the Congress worked on the Declaration. Did the final version improve on the draft? If so, how?

Now, students should continue to work on their declarations. They should be nearing completion of a first draft, including a statement of previous attempts to redress grievances, and a declaration of independence. Take some time to discuss the writing process within the student groups. How did they proceed? Did they ever go back and make changes? What kinds of changes? Did more than one person have input?

Activity 8. Publish and Declare

Now, the student groups should complete and present their “declarations.” If typed on a computer, these can be printed out in an appropriately ornate font. The paper can be stained using tea to give the appearance of age. Students should sign the document on which they worked.

If students have access to the necessary technology, they can create hyperlinks from sections of their computerized declaration to specific precedents in the Declaration. Students should now reflect on their experience writing a declaration and the process that created it. What part of their own declaration would they say most resembles the 1776 Declaration of Independence causes? Which complaint? Which part of their beliefs? What changes did they make in the course of writing their documents? How did the group decide how to proceed? Student declarations should be posted and, if practical, sent to the intended audience (parents, principal).

For a culminating activity, the documents can be read in class in ceremonial fashion. The documents’ reflection of the structure of the Declaration will help the teacher assess the success of the activity.

Relevant Collections on

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