|Introduction | Questions and Activities | Lesson Focus | Resources | Program Index||Teacher's Guide Contents|
2: Political SymbolsThere will be petition after petition [during the Revolutionary era] to the Massachusetts Colonial Assembly and then later to the Continental Congress. Petitions [were] sent by African slaves themselves saying that we are demand- ing manding that you give us the same kind of freedom that you are demanding from England.
John Hope Franklin, historian
How revolutionary was the American Revolution? This lesson uses a program segment and primary sources to explore the revolutionary rhetoric of British American colonists and its application to the lives of enslaved Africans and free blacks.
Program Segment (approximately 27 minutes)
As American colonists invoke the language of liberty to press for economic freedom from British rule, African Americans, both enslaved and free, use the same language to fight for freedom from chattel slavery and the repressive laws.
Begin: Narrator: "In the years following the Stamp Act . . . "
End: Narrator: "Some five thousand black soldiers would serve alongside whites."
Bearing in mind the various groups of people who lived in the American colonies, who do you think fought in the Revolutionary War? On which side? Why?
Discuss the meaning of the words freedom, liberty, and slavery. How might different groups in the American colonies -- men, women, black, white, Native American -- define those words? As students watch the program segment, have them look for evidence of how African Americans and British colonists defined these terms.
Who supported the idea of a war for American independence? Who opposed it? Why? How did the information presented in the program segment support or change your previous knowledge about the American Revolution?
How did Lord Dunmore's proclamation change the course of the war? How did the proclamation unite the American colonists?
On which side of the Revolutionary War do you think blacks should have fought? Why?
Exploring Primary Sources
How could the reality of American slavery coexist with the ideal of American liberty? Why was a passage in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, blaming King George III for African slavery in the colonies, deleted from the final version? To explore colonial perspectives on freedom and slavery, read and summarize the Jefferson quotation from the previous section and the documents below, as a class or in small groups.
- "Defense of Slavery in Virginia, Peter Fontaine, 1757
- "Natural Rights of Colonists," James Otis, 1764
- Slave Petition to the Massachusetts General Assembly, 1773
- The Watchman's Alarm, John Allen, 1774
- Rough draft of the Declaration of Independence
- Petition to the Massachusetts General Assembly, 1777
Have students discuss the meaning of the following statement: "Resolved: American slavery is an oxymoron." Now ask students to imagine that Thomas Jefferson, Venture Smith, George Washington, Abigail Adams, John Allen, Benjamin Banneker, Lord Dunmore, James Otis, and Phillis Wheatley have met to debate the statement. Which side of the debate would each of these people be on and why?
Working individually or in teams, have students use the Declaration of Independence and other period documents to research each historical character's views on slavery, freedom, individual rights, American independence, and citizenship. Then have them present their findings to the class by holding a mock debate or acting as reporters covering the debate.
The Wedgwood Medallion (in Part Two) and its female counterpart (represented by Specimen of Modern Printing Types, No. 844, in Part Three) became the emblems of the 19th century abolitionist movements. This activity will help students explore the process of creating an emblem, and the impact of such symbols or images on public perception.
As an introduction to this activity have students read these two entries in the AIA Resource Bank. You might also wish to explore other entries in the Resource Bank related to images of African Americans, such as "Offended Dignity," or the Clay cartoons.
Have the class brainstorm a list of other popular symbols that began as serious statements of support for a cause or a belief (e.g., red lapel ribbons, "WWJD" bracelets). What message was each symbol intended to convey? Does wearing the symbol now say something about the beliefs of the wearer? How do the histories of the two abolitionist medallions compare to those you just discussed?
- Wedgewood Medallion
- Specimen of Modern Printing Types, No. 844
- Jim Crow
- "Offended Dignity"
- Clay cartoon: "Is Miss Dinah at Home? "
- Clay cartoon: "Grand Celebration Ob De Bobalition Ob African Slabery"
- Clay cartoon: "Black Charge"
Have the class identify a "cause" or belief that they hold in common (e.g., support or opposition to a school dress code or other policy, to child labor laws, or to an international human rights issue). You may wish to select a list of options in advance.
Each student should develop a design of a symbol to represent the class "cause." As a written assignment, they should then consider the steps they would need to make to persuade the rest of the group to adopt the design. Think about what compromises will be necessary: What will they give up? What will they gain? What factors other than the merit of the design determine whether it will be adopted?
After completing their work, have several students share their plans. Then have the class discuss how their plans were similar or different. What insights did students gain about the process of group decision making?
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