Signing the Declaration of Independence
Every Fourth of July, Americans celebrate the courage and vision of the men who gathered together in July 1776 to sign our nation's Declaration of Independence. This document, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and edited by other famous figures like John Adams, lists the many reasons why colonial leaders came to the decision that would change the course of history: the decision to leave English rule and determine America's own fate as a country.
As it turned out, the great words of the Declaration of Independence did more than just start our Revolution. Since 1776, its principles have acted as a base for the Constitution and have inspired revolutionary, freedom movements across the world.
In this activity, explore the Declaration of Independence by having your teenagers pretend to be a member of the group that signed it. This is a great activity to help your teenagers start to identify the personal and collective values in our nation and can be the start of an important, life-long discussion.
What You Need:
- Our "Declaration of Independence Pledge Sheet" (download here)
- Several curious middle school (or older) kids who are studying American History (and maybe an interested adult moderator or two!)
What You Do:
- Download enough copies of the "Declaration of Independence Pledge Sheet" for each participant.
- Establish a context for all the participants so that everyone understands the history and purpose of the activity. Though some people may confuse the two, the Declaration of Independence (signed in 1776) is not the same as the Constitution (ratified in 1789). The Declaration was written to tell England the reasons why the colonies were rebelling and why these reasons were justified. On the other hand, the Constitution was written to outline the system of laws and processes that would unify America. The Declaration is not a law itself; however, its words did inspire many aspects of the democratic system we enjoy today.
- Encouraging the participants to keep these facts in mind, ask them: would you sign the Declaration if it were put in front of you today?
- Start the activity by reading the famous first paragraph of the Declaration aloud together. This paragraph is included in the top of the "Pledge Sheet."
- Next, identify the plain language versions of the four major ideas which the Founders put forward. Give everyone an allotted amount of time to read each idea and make notes in silence. Remind participants not to sign the document yet. This activity is based on a great American tradition of open debate, so signatures should come afterward!
- After the allotted time, discuss each statement, one at a time. Be aware that the ideas presented are rich and nuanced topics, and in our free democracy, discussions can and should go on for years. For the purpose of this activity, set a timer for each topic. Remember, even if it does not feel like enough time, it’s a tribute to the complexity of the issues, not a failure of this activity!
- After you've discussed all four statements, declare one last minute of silence for everyone to reflect on the points brought up in discussion. Then, invite everyone to sign where they can agree, and tally up the group's totals.