The Revolutionary Era and the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence has shaped thinking about freedom, liberty, justice, and human rights since the American Revolution. Activities explore the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments; Eleanor Roosevelt and the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and what students think a 21st century Declaration should declare. A Media Literacy Connection examines Declarations of Independence on social media.

Standard 2.1: The Revolutionary Era and the Declaration of Independence

Apply knowledge of the American Revolutionary period to determine the experiences and events that led the colonists to declare independence; explain key ideas about equality, representative government, limited government, rule of law, natural rights, common good, and the purpose of government in the Declaration of Independence. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Science) [8.T2.1]

British attempts to assert tighter control over its North American colonies and the colonial resolve to pursue self-government led to a colonial independence movement and the Revolutionary War. (AP U.S. History Key Concept) [3.1]

FOCUS QUESTION: What Key Ideas are the Foundations of United States Government?

Presenting the Declaration of Independence

"Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull | Public Domain

Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, edited by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, and adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence consists of 1,320 of the most famous words and phrases in history:

The Declaration asserted that all men have “inalienable rights” that had been violated by a “long train of abuses and usurpations” committed by the king and government of England. Listing the laws and acts that the colonists felt were intolerable, the Declaration stated in no uncertain terms that people had a right to cut ties with a government that they believe is unjust.

A statement of principles and protests, the Declaration did not have the force of law. It is the United States Constitution that “establishes the shape of government, and the limits and boundaries of the freedom it protects. Still the Declaration of Independence remains the outstanding example of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of U.S. law” (Teaching American History Professional Development Project, nd., p. 1).

The signing of the Declaration has been immortalized by John Trumbull's famous painting (shown below). But as journalist Olivia B. Waxman has noted in Time magazine, "This Painting is Probably How You Imagine the Original Fourth of July. Here's What Wrong with It."

back of the two dollar bill

John Trumbull’s Painting is found on the back of the two dollar bill
"USTwoDollarBillBack" | Public Domain

The Declaration of Independence is a key document of the American Revolution, but by the time it was signed the Revolutionary War was well underway, having begun with the Battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775) and the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775).

The Declaration was also not the only one as states, towns, counties, and assorted other bodies had issued nearly 100 declarations leading up to July 4, 1776 (America's 100 Other Declarations of Independence).

1. INVESTIGATE: The Seneca Falls Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments (1848)

The Seneca Falls Convention was organized in western New York in 1848 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and a collection of Mott's fellow Quakers. 

List of Signatures of the Declaration of Sentiments
"List of Signatures of the Declaration of Sentiments" by Mcvy is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Convention lasted six days and was attended by 300 people. On the morning of July 19, 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton read aloud what would become one of the most important documents in United States history, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

"Engraving of Elizabeth Cady Stanton" (created before 1869) by Henry Bryan Hall, Jr. | Public Domain

Modeled after the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments contained a list of the grievances and inequalities caused by men, which paralleled those caused by the King of England. It included a list of demands for equality for women in the home, at work, and in education, as well as a call for women’s suffrage (the right to vote in political elections). Frederick Douglass attended and spoke at the convention, supporting suffrage. The resulting Declaration of Sentiments was signed by 100 people.

The Declaration of Sentiments provides teachers and students with opportunities to compare and contrast the issues that led the colonists to declare independence from England with the events and issues that led women to declare their rights as equal members of society. The Timeline of Women’s Rights in Early America (National Women’s History Museum) offers an overview of the status of women in early America.

Teachers from different subject fields can integrate the Declaration of Sentiments in curriculum and instruction (submitted by Sharon Edwards):

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Compare and Contrast the Declarations
    • Read the Declaration of Independence and Declaration of Sentiments side-by-side.
      • What similarities do you find?
      • What differences do you find?
      • What has been the lasting impact of each Declaration?
      • What events and issues influenced the writing of each Declaration?

Online Resources for the Declaration of Sentiments and Women’s Rights in Early America

2.UNCOVER: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and one of the most influential first ladies and women leaders in United States history.  

A political activist throughout her life, Eleanor Roosevelt worked for women’s rights and the end of discrimination and poverty in the nation and the world. She was a diplomat, active internationally after World War II in promoting peace and freedom for all people. She was a prolific writer, authoring a six-days-a-week newspaper column titled My Day that ran from December 30, 1935 to September 26, 1962. At its height, the My Day column appeared in 90 newspapers nationwide with a readership of over four million people. Learn more about her expansive political career: Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady and Citizen Activist.

Eleanor Roosevelt has been called the “First Lady of the World." One of her most important achievements was inspiring the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms
Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in English), Lake Success, New York. November 1949. FDR Presidential Library & Museum 64-165. CC BY 2.0

Adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights consists of 30 articles listing the basic rights that every person anywhere on Earth should have. The Universal Declaration was a direct response to the horrors of atrocities of World War II. The opening to its Preamble reads: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world" (United Nations). 

As summarized in National Geographic Magazine (2008), the Declaration stated:

Watch on YouTube

The following wiki page offers more background on The Creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Create a Human Rights Mosaic
    • Design a mosaic image for one or more of the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

*Amherst Middle School teachers Kat Sherrick and Irene LaRoche created this lesson for students. For examples of student work, visit Year 4 2017-2018 Human Rights Art Project Presentation for Methods.

Online Resources for Eleanor Roosevelt and the Declaration of Human Rights

3.ENGAGE: What Would a 21st Century Declaration of Independence Declare?

The Declaration that was adopted on July 4, 1776 was not the first declaration of independence in the colonies (Worcester, Massachusetts adopted America's First Declaration of Independence on October 4, 1774) nor was it the only declaration of rights and independence in United States and world history.

Today, more than half of the countries represented at the United Nations (193) have a signed declaration of independence document. Here is the list of Declarations of Independence from Wikipedia.

Other notable declarations in United States and world history include:

There are famous statements of independence by individual writers and activists, including:

All of these declarations were written before the 21st century's technology, climate, and politically-interconnected global world. Many think an updated Declaration is needed; for example, one commentator proposed that instead of text that says "all men are created equal," revised language might say "all humankind is entitled to fully enjoy unalienable rights" (A 21st Century Declaration of Independence, KQED, July 2, 2021).

What should a 21st century Declaration of Independence declare? What language from the original Declaration would you change? What language would you keep? What statements about human rights, economic opportunities, rules of law, climate justice, technology, or other issues would you add?

Media Literacy Connections: Declarations of Independence on Social Media

Throughout U.S. history, oppressed and disenfranchised groups (women, African Americans, farmers, workers, indigenous peoples, and more) have set forth their declarations of independence. Modeled after the original Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, these documents set forth their visions for achieving full rights, freedoms, and liberties as members of American democracy.

Imagine these groups had access to modern social media platforms. How would they have utilized social media to express their ideas and gain support for their goals?

Watch on YouTube

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Make a Declaration or Statement of Independence Jamboard
    • Choose one of the Declarations of Independence listed about and display in a jamboard?
      • What is the document about in kid-friendly language?
      • Who wrote the document?
      • Why was it written?
      • Why is it important?
      • What image or images convey the meaning of the document?
  • Compare and Contrast Declarations of Independence
    • Using the resources listed above, what are individuals and groups declaring about independence and freedom in their documents and speeches?  
    • How are they alike? How do they differ?
    • Is a Declaration an effective way to persuade people to support a cause or a movement? 

Online Resources for other Colonial Era Declarations of Independence

Standard 2.1 Conclusion

The principles of the Declaration of Independence, declared Frederick Douglass in his 1852 Fourth of July address, are "saving principles" and people must be "true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost." INVESTIGATE discussed efforts by women to assert their rights and freedoms through the Seneca Falls Convention's Declaration of Sentiments. UNCOVER explored Eleanor Roosevelt and the writing of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ENGAGE asked who wrote other declarations of independence in U.S. and world history and what might a 21st century declaration declare.

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Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/democracy/revolutionaryera.