Gain a first-hand understanding of the conditions faced by Washington's Continental Army, and explore how Washington was able to hold his troops together.


You’ll need the free acrobat reader.

The Declaration of Independence
An Analytical View

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, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation...

Thomas Jefferson
The Declaration of Independence (1776)


Perhaps no document in history has undergone as much scrutiny as the Declaration of Independence. In this formal statement announcing the severed ties between the thirteen colonies and Great Britain, Thomas Jefferson wrote essentially of a new theory of government, in which the government itself was expected and required to protect “natural rights” of citizens.

Since Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration, many groups have interpreted the document to mean different ideas, and frequently, the Declaration has been used to justify other political and social movements. While the Declaration is an important historic document and incorporates many of America’s most basic beliefs, it has no effect of law in 21st Century America.

In this lesson, students will question the importance of the Declaration of Independence, its meaning during the time of the Revolution and its impact today.

Related Resources for the Lesson

In this lesson, students will use the following resources:

  1. Episode #2 of Liberty!, entitled, “Blows Must Decide”. (Note: The segment of the episode that deals with the Declaration of Independence begins at the 44 minute mark in the video and runs until 53:35.)
  2. An analysis of John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government”, located at Specifically, students will be looking at the following entries:

  3. Related Questions PDF (for students)
  4. Related Questions PDF (for teachers, with answers)

Relevant Standards

This lesson addresses the following national content standards established by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) (

US History:

• Understands the creation of the Declaration of Independence (e.g., historical antecedents that contributed to the document and individuals who struggled for independence)

• Understands how the principles of the Declaration of Independence justified American independence

• Understands differences and similarities between the Declaration of Independence and other documents on government (e.g., the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” and John Locke's Two Treatises on Government)

• Understands contradictions between the Declaration of Independence and the institution of chattel slavery


• Knows the essential ideas of American constitutional government that are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other writings (e.g., the Constitution is a higher law that authorizes a government of limited powers; the Preamble to the Constitution states the purposes of government such as to form a more perfect union, establish justice, provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare)

• Knows major historical events that led to the creation of limited government in the United States (e.g., Magna Carta (1215), common law, and the Bill of Rights (1689) in England; colonial experience, Declaration of Independence (1776), Articles of Confederation (1781), state constitutions and charters, United States Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1791) in America)

• Knows basic values and principles that Americans share (e.g., as set forth in documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Gettysburg Address)

• Understands how the basic premises of liberalism and democracy are joined in the Declaration of Independence, in which they are stated as "self-evident Truths" (e.g., "all men are created equal," authority is derived from consent of the governed and people have the right to alter or abolish government when it fails to fulfill its purposes)

Strategy for the Lesson

The teacher may elect to begin this lesson by having students discuss what they see as the advantages and disadvantages of declaring independence from Britain. The teacher might open this discussion by noting that the Continental Congress did not consider independence for more than a year after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. Ask students to speculate or discuss what other options were being considered to reconcile the colonists with the British.

The teacher should write student responses (or designate a student as the “secretary”) regarding the advantages and disadvantages of independence on the chalkboard or on an overhead transparency.

Suggested answers include:

Advantages    Disadvantages
Possibility of foreign aid from France

Legitimacy in the world community

Captured soldiers treated as POWs not spies or rebels

Independence might unite different areas of the colonies

Stating for the world the ideological basis of this new country

Freedom from subservience to the King
   Might lose friends in England who supported cause of colonists in regard to representation in Parliament but not independence

Might cause division within the colonies
If Revolution failed, the and leaders might be tried and executed as traitors.

Colonies were poorly
prepared for war
Fighting the largest military
power in the world
No weapons nor
manufacturing to make them

Dependent on England for
elements needed to fight a
Chances of winning the war
were slim.
Colonists would be cutting
themselves off from the
biggest, freest empire in the
Sentimental attachment to

Once the students have finished brainstorming, the teacher and class should overview the immediate situation and conditions that prompted colonists to declare independence, either through the textbook or using the Liberty! Web site. The teacher should remind students that the idea of independence was not necessarily embraced by all colonists, and that while many believed the British had violated the colonists’ basic rights, the violation was not enough to warrant a rebellion.

Students may also wish to research some of the issues or questions brought up by Thomas Paine in Common Sense during their brainstorming.

Next, the teacher should either direct students to access the Declaration of Independence online or distribute copies in handout form. Once students have their copies, it is suggested that the teacher help students divide the Declaration into three basic parts and define those terms.

Those parts include:

1. The preamble: A preamble is a preliminary statement, especially the introduction to a formal document that serves to explain its purpose. In this instance, Jefferson used the preamble to discuss the basic rights of man. It has since become the most famous part of the document.

The Preamble of the Declaration runs from Jefferson’s opening of the Declaration to the words, “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Note: Jefferson derived many of his ideas for the preamble from the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by his friend George Mason as well as from his own draft preamble to the Virginia Constitution, which in turn were based upon Locke but much more “radical”.

2. A list of grievances against King George III: A grievance is
a. An actual or supposed circumstance regarded as just cause for complaint
b. A complaint or protestation based on such a circumstance

The list of grievances runs from “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” to “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Note: In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson listed several complaints against King George, in which he hoped to lay the foundation for the case supporting independence.

3. A formal declaration of war, in which the colonists pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.”

The formal declaration includes the rest of the document.

Next, the teacher should distribute the question sheets to the class. Allow sufficient time for students to complete the questions. Once students have completed the questions, the teacher should evaluate them according to the depth of answer desired, the amount of time allowed for the assignment as well as any other criteria established by the teacher, such as spelling and grammar.

Extension Activities:

1. Ask students to evaluate other political documents in regard to the influence of the Declaration on their creation. Two documents that students might evaluate include:
a. French “Declaration of Rights of Man” (, written in 1789
b. Seneca Falls Conference “Declaration of Sentiments” (, written in 1848

2. Ask students to compare these documents with the Declaration (the teacher may wish to substitute other documents if they are available) and in chart form, show specific instances where the authors of these documents borrowed from Jefferson.

3. Have students compare the final draft of the Declaration of Independence with Locke’s writing and George Mason’s documents.

Copyright© 2004 Twin Cities Public Television. All Rights Reserved. 
Credits | Privacy Policy | Feedback: