Library of Congress
The Declaration of Independence: Created Equal?
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- Review the basic purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Today begins the examination of certain key concepts of the document.
- Begin with a brainstorming activity on the meaning of equality. Students brainstorm individually at first. After a few minutes, divide into groups of 4-5. Students share interpretations of the word within each group. Each student should add two additional interpretations of equality to his or her list for variety.
- Bring everyone back to discuss the various meanings developed both individually and within the group.
- After discussion, introduce the phrase "all men are created equal" from the Declaration of Independence. Return to groups to interpret what Jefferson meant by this phrase in the document.
- Discuss as a whole the interpretations of this phrase.
- Next consider, "Who was not represented by this statement?" Allow groups time to discuss.
- Compare definitions from the various groups as to their actual meaning and the interpreted meaning of this phrase. Some key questions to ask:
- What was Jefferson's intended purpose for the phrase?
- Were there ethical considerations?
- Could he justify such a statement for inclusion in the Declaration of Independence?
- Each student picks a card that has either "for" or "against" written on it. The card also includes a number that designates the student's group for the rest of the lesson. Depending on the size of the class you may have four to six groups in each period (half for Jefferson and half against Jefferson.)
- Arrange for 2-3 days in a computer lab. If a lab is not available, print out copies of the materials linked from the Was It Compromise or Hypocrisy? Web page.
- Direct students to the Was It Compromise or Hypocrisy? Web page. Students enter the side they are supporting - for or against Jefferson. Each link leads students to sources necessary to prepare their evidence.
- Students gather information from the web links and additional searching of the American Memory collections as needed, record their findings on their Evidence Compilation Sheets. Students take this information to their respective groups. Each team is responsible for presenting their respective evidence sheets to the rest of the class. The presentation may be done using overheads, chalk or white board in the room, or butcher paper that can be hung on the wall of the classroom.
- After reviewing all of the evidence for both sides, discuss the pros and cons of each side of the argument. If desired, take a class vote on what was meant by the phrase, "All men are created equal."
- To culminate this lesson, each student drafts a letter addressed to the opposite position detailing his or her findings and viewpoints. Consider the following when making a rubric for the letter:
- Evidence presented in arguments is thorough and accurate.
- Letter presents appropriate viewpoint of author.
- In addition, a discussion should be held on how we should interpret the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence. What did it mean in 1776? What does it mean today?
- Break the class into two groups based on Jefferson's intentions regarding equality in the Declaration of Independence. One group believes Jefferson meant all men, while the other group believes Jefferson meant all white men. Find evidence in the American Memory collections to support each position.
- Rewrite the Declaration of Independence (or portions of it) to fit a contemporary society.
- Stage a mock trial with the students playing the roles of Jefferson and others. The American Memory materials serve as evidence to be presented in a trial. Include a judge, witnesses, jury, defense lawyers, and prosecution.
- One individual student could portray Thomas Jefferson and answer questions raised by the rest of class on the phrase "all men are created equal."