Close Reading Activity: The Declaration of Independence

July 3rd, 2013

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.”

Engage your students in a close reading of the Declaration of Independence with the help of these discussion questions from our Independence Day ebook:

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.

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. 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? What is meant by the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and how are these related to our “peoplehood”? What is a “right,” and where do individual rights come from? What is a “self-evident” truth, and in what self-evidently true sense can we say that “all men are created equal”? How does the Declaration understand the relation between the individual and the collective? Between our rights and our responsibilities (or duties)? Do we Americans today still hold these truths (or any truths) to be self-evident?

Review carefully the list of grievances. Which ones strike you as most egregious? To what do they all add up? Why does the document emphasize the deeds of the king, downplaying the complicit role of Parliament? What is the relation between these grievances and the philosophical principles stated earlier? Are you persuaded that revolution was in fact justified? Imagining 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? 

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

Tags: , , , ,