Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: A Lesson on the Declaration of Independence

July 9th, 2013

By Anne Continetti  

Download the full lesson as a PDF.

Course | US History, US Government (AP or non-AP), Civics, Grades 11–12

Length | This lesson is designed for a 60-minute class period. Extension activities are included at the end of the lesson.

Objective | Students will be able to: understand the meaning and central ideas of the Declaration of Independence; cite textual evidence to analyze this primary source; and analyze the structure of the document.

 Common Core Standards Addressed | Literacy in History/Social Studies, Grades 11–12:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.5 Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

Materials Included | Each student should have a copy of the Declaration of Independence (PDF) to read for homework. Included is a copy of Jefferson’s letter to Henry Lee for the extension activities.

Teacher Background Information | On July 4, 1776, two days after it adopted the Lee Resolution that declared the united colonies’ independence from Great Britain, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), which explains that decision by “declar[ing] the causes which impel them to the separation.” These causes are laid out in the bill of particular charges against the king, the listing of which constitutes the bulk of the Declaration.

But in addition, the opening paragraphs of the Declaration provide the first and most authoritative statement of what we might call “the American creed.” For in separating from Great Britain, the united colonies ground their claim to political independence in a teaching about individual human rights—to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to which rightful freedoms all human beings are said to be equally entitled.

In articulating the four self-evident truths (natural equality, inalienable individual rights, government founded on the consent of the governed, and the people’s right of revolution) and compiling the list of the king’s abuses, Jefferson claims to have done nothing more than “place before mankind the common sense of the subject.” “It was,” he explained years later, “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

Even so, this birth announcement of the American Republic reveals that it is the first nation anywhere to be founded not on ties of blood, soil, or lineage but on a set of philosophical principles for which the document—and the nation—are justly celebrated.

Class Activity

Student Preparation | Instruct students to read the Declaration of Independence, underlining meaningful word choices and defining words they do not know. Students should summarize in the margins the meaning, central ideas, and key themes of each section of the document.

Warm-Up (5 minutes) | Students will have read the Declaration of Independence for homework, so they should be familiar with the list of grievances in the document. Have students review this list, then ask:

1. Which ones strike you as the most egregious, and why?

2. Which one would most grieve you personally? Politically?

Students may spend a few minutes jotting down their answers; then have them share with the class.

Textual Analysis & Class Discussion (40 minutes) | Project the questions below on the board. Instruct the students to work with a partner or small group to answer the questions. Then, discuss the answers as a class, giving each group an opportunity to share their responses and add on to other groups’.

Careful study of the text will attend to both the universal principles and the particular grievances, as well as to the question of the relation between them.

1. What, according to the Declaration, makes the American colonists a distinct “people,” entitled to a “separate and equal station” among the peoples of the world?

2. What is meant by the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and how are these related to our “peoplehood”?

3. What is a “right,” and where do individual rights come from?

4. What does it mean to say that a right is “unalienable”?

5. What is the meaning of the right of “life”? Of “liberty”? Of “the pursuit of happiness”?

6. What is a “self-evident” truth, and in what self-evidently true sense can we say that “all men are created equal”?

7. How does the Declaration understand the relation between the individual and the collective? Between our rights and our responsibilities (or duties)?

8. Review carefully the list of grievances. To what do they all add up?

9. Why does the document emphasize the deeds of the King, downplaying the complicit role of Parliament?

10. What is the relation between these grievances and the philosophical principles stated earlier?

11. Are you persuaded that revolution was in fact justified?

12. Do we Americans today still hold these truths [in the Declaration] to be self-evident? If yes, how so? If no, why not?

Wrap-Up Activity (15 minutes) | Instruct students to reflect on the following questions that tie the Declaration of Independence back to their lives:

1. What does the Declaration of Independence mean to you?

2. Can you imagine yourself “declaring independence”? From what, and why? 

3. What would it mean for you to be independent, personally and politically?

4. In the name of what would you strive—or risk your life—for independence?

After students share their responses with their classmates, ask students to think about the following:

1. What are the challenges when it comes to a people declaring independence versus an individual?

2. Were your classmates’ declarations of independence similar to yours or different? Why? 

3. What might have been some of the challenges that our Founding Fathers faced when declaring independence as a people?

Extension Activities | 1. Write an essay response to one of the following questions:

Imagine yourself in Philadelphia in July 1776. Would you have pledged your Life, Fortune, and sacred Honor to support this Declaration?

Would you—and in the name of what?—make such a pledge today to support the American Republic, should comparable support be needed? 

2. Read Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825.  In this letter, he reflects on the sources of the Declaration of Independence. Reflect on what this letter has taught you about Jefferson’s intentions and the views of other patriots, when Jefferson wrote the declaration.

3. Read the Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Convention and write an essay comparing and contrasting it to the Declaration of Independence. Take note of the structure of the document in addition to its meaning. 

About the Author Anne is a history teacher at the Madeira School in McLean, Virginia. Contact her at anne [at] whatsoproudlywehail [dot] org.

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