Learn about the Declaration of Independence
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“We hold these truths to be self-evident….” You’ve heard the words a million times, but how much do you really know about the Declaration of Independence? And how much do your kids know?
We tend to think of these documents as works of genius that appeared overnight, but in fact Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence the old-fashioned way: over time, after extensive research, and with a lot of help from his friends.
A little hazy on your revolutionary history? Here's a refresher: In April 1775, fighting broke out between the American Colonies and the British government. In June 1776, a committee of the Second Continental Congress appointed Jefferson to draft a paper explaining the Colonists’ grievances against the King and justifying their bid for independence. Fellow committee members John Adams and Benjamin Franklin edited the rough draft, and Jefferson presented a final draft to the Continental Congress on June 28.
On July 2, Richard Henry Lee issued the “Lee Resolution” declaring the Colonies “free and independent.” Scooped, Jefferson went back to the drawing board one last time and presented the final version of the Declaration on July 4, 1776. Because involvement meant committing treason against the King, a crime punishable by death, there was no dramatic public vote; members signed in secret and the document wasn’t fully signed until August 2.
The Declaration of Independence didn’t present new ideas. Jefferson drew extensively from the work of English philosopher John Locke, who wrote about “natural law,” and from Thomas Paine’s political pamphlet “Common Sense.” In fact, the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property” was drawn directly from “Common Sense.” What Jefferson did was make a formal announcement to the world that the Colonies had specific grievances against the Crown and that they weren’t going to stand for more. It allowed other nations to enter the fray as allies, and persuaded many colonists to back the bid for independence. Over 200 years later, it still stands as an inspiration to us all.
Want to capture the spirit behind the Declaration of Independence? Here are a few ways to get your kids talking about the document:
- Read the full transcript online here
- See the original, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, at The National Archives in Washington D.C.
- Ask your child what rights she considers “self-evident.”
- Create an “old” document by briefly soaking white paper in a pan of strong black tea. Let dry. When it does, it will be crackly and lightly browned. Give your child a feather and a bottle of ink to sign his “John Hancock.”
- If you have older kids, read Thomas Paine's “Common Sense”, or the works of John Locke together, to get a glimpse at some of the inspiration behind Jefferson's work.