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Question

Q10: Which of the following is an important idea from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?

A. Liberty and Political Equality 
B. Limited Government
C. Self-Government
D. All of these

Q11: The words “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are in what founding document?

A. The US Constitution
B. The Northwest Ordinance
C. The Declaration of Independence
D. The Articles of Confederation

Question Background Information

While the Constitution explains how the government works, the Declaration’s political philosophy explains what makes a just government. This philosophy has inspired generations of Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, the authors of the Seneca Falls Declaration, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the years before and during the American Revolution, the colonists had repeatedly petitioned the British government for a redress of grievances, pointing out all the ways that the government had violated their liberties. The initial objection had been to Parliament claiming the power to impose taxes, which the colonists believed belonged to the local governments instead. But when the colonists resisted, the British began other practices: stationing soldiers inside homes, closing Boston’s port and Massachusetts’ local government, and shipping those accused of crime to Britain for trial. 

The colonists reluctantly concluded that reconciliation was impossible and began preparing for independence. The Second Continental Congress assigned a committee—consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston— to draft the document that would publicly declare the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain, as well as explain why. 

With advice from the rest of the committee, Thomas Jefferson became the primary draftsman of the Declaration of Independence, which drew on various strands of Western political philosophy but most directly modeled the text of the recent Virginia Declaration of Rights drafted by George Mason.

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.” (Mason’s Virginia Declaration, picking up from English philosopher John Locke’s famous formulation, had characterized these core rights as “life, liberty, and property”, while adding “pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety” as an additional right; Jefferson condensed this and reframed property as “the pursuit of happiness.”) 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 violated their rights. 

Moreover, the Declaration of Independence asserted that ‘all men are created equal,’ meaning that no one has, by right, the innate authority to rule another. For a government to have legitimate authority, it must act with the consent of the people that it governs. 

While the argument of the Declaration seems open to different forms of government that preserve the rights of the people, Americans increasingly came to believe that the principle that ‘all men are created equal’ suggested a republican form of government.

The Declaration’s ideas of liberty, political equality, limited government, and self-government later served as important features of the Constitution. 

Additional Content

Offline Activity

Introduction

We know about the Declaration, but have we read it? If so, did we consider the words and what they really mean, or do we tend to take them at face value? This activity requires the students to think beyond the words they see and look at the meanings imbued within them, within the phrases, and within the document as a whole. 

Preparation

Provide each group with a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Required materials

  • Declaration of Independence (and extra paper if not annotating on text itself)
  • Declaration of Independence (annotated) - We will be providing an annotated copy soon. 

Instructions

  1. Divide the class into groups of 3-4 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 that has mastered the material; Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Each group should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C. 
    • If students are in pairs rather than groups, then divide them based on ability as well, pairing those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C). 
  2. Provide each group/pair with a copy of the Declaration of Independence.  
  3. Explain that they are to read the document and that each group member should annotate their copy.  
    • Tell students to write at least three questions and three comments/observations. The notes should be written in the margins of the document provided. 
      • Example of questions: 
        • “What does the phrase pursuit of happiness really mean?” 
        • “Why did they have to list what the king was doing wrong?”
      • Examples of comments: 
        • “I can’t believe that the British did all those things! No wonder they wanted independence!”
        •  “It’s really interesting that they acknowledge religion, even though they don’t name any particular one.” 
      • Emphasize that there is no “wrong” question or observation, and encourage them to write down any question or observation that comes to mind, even if they go over the required total. 
  4. Provide the groups/pairs with time to annotate and discuss; 15-20 minutes depending on the class and the amount of content to annotate. 
  5. At the end of the activity, facilitate a class discussion, allowing the students to lead with the questions and comments/observations that they wrote in the margins. You can use the annotated copy to answer questions they have or to provide additional background.

Discussion Prompts

Background

The Declaration of Independence is, quite simply, the core exposition of the ideals that define the American political project. It shaped the U.S. Constitution, its language was borrowed in writing state constitutions, and its philosophy was appealed to by those seeking political reforms to bring American political practice in line with the Declaration’s promises.

Prompt 1

The Declaration of Independence laid out much of the core American political philosophy. Can you name some important ideas in it that later shaped our country? What are some important rights it describes?

Prompt 2

The ideas in the Declaration of Independence have been thought to be timeless, appealing to others through history and to today. What are some instances of that that you know about? How do those ideals apply to you today?  Use past and current events in your answer.

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