Underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence

Four Primary Sources—Underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence

Class Length: 1 Class Meeting


Students will be able to:

  1. Identify the key ideas in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence : natural rights, the social contract, the right to revolution, popular sovereignty, and the right of self-determination
  2. Explain that other contemporary documents contained similar themes


- __? (cited reference #2)

- Declaration of Independence (cited reference #3)


Distribute the student worksheet entitled, “Key Definitions” to students and ask them to try and develop definitions for each of the words in groups of two or three. After students have completed this work reconvene the class and invite several students to share their answers with the class. Then display the transparency entitled, “Key Words Defined.”

Ask students to read the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and write down three ideas that strike them as being most important within the text. After students have completed this work, lead a discussion in which students explain their responses, justifying them from the words of the text.

Either working individually or in small groups, students will receive copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Declaration of Rights. (Inform students that the Virginia Declaration of Rights was written in June, 1776.) Students will locate evidence and themes found in the Virginia Declaration of Rights as they resonate with the ideas captured in the Declaration of Independence. Students can use the table located on the worksheet entitled “Comparing the Declaration of Independence to the Virginia Declaration of Rights to record this comparison.
Key Definitions

Please define the following words in groups of two or three:

Natural Rights:

Social Contract:

Right to Revolution:

Popular Sovereignty:

Right of Self Determination:

Key Words Defined

Natural Rights: Rights which persons possess by nature: that is, without the intervention of agreement, or in the absence of political and legal institutions. Natural rights are therefore attributable to individuals without distinction of time or place.

Social Contract: An agreement among the members of an organized society or between the governed and the government defining and limiting the rights and duties of each.

Right to Revolution: Revolution is the over-throw of an established government, but to assert a right of revolution is to imply that such an is legitimate.

Popular Sovereignty: A political condition in which the people are sovereign, that is, the people exercise the definitive decision-making power.

Right of Self Determination: Determination of one's own fate or course of action without compulsion; free will; Freedom of the people of a given area to determine their own political status; independence. 2008. Answers Corporation. 18 February 2008 <>.

Comparing the Declaration of Independence to the Virginia Declaration of Rights

Please identify five themes from the Declaration of Independence that can also be found in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Identify the location of the theme in each document, in the appropriate column.

Major Theme Declaration of Independence Virginia Declaration of Rights

Students will engage the following scenario:

- The year is 3007, the concept of American Government is a thing of the past, nearly forgotten by the members of society of your time. You are an expert anthropologist whose unique specialty is early North American society. Recently your team found two documents (the aforementioned texts) indicating some connection to the foundations of North American society. Using your expert anthropological analysis and deciphering skills, you gather data and report your findings to the national authorities. Your report will include:

o The name of the documents you find, and their contributors.

o Their major themes

o How they characterize the people of its time

o How the documents indicate a stable or static form of government

o The stages of evolution of early American government

This lesson was designed with materials adapted from M. Muharrar, R. Miller, M. Burke’s “Four Documents’ Influence on the Declaration of Independence” (2007) (cited reference #5).


?(2006). Instructions from the town of malden,

massachusetts, for a declaration of independence. Ashland University:

Revolutionary. Retrieved November 7th, 2007 from

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (2007). Virginia declaration of rights

Retrieved November 7th, 2007 from

Kindig, T. (1995). The declaration of independence: When in the course of human

events…. U.S. We Hold These Truths. Retrieved October 17th, 2007


Massachusetts Historical Society (2000). Slave petition to the governor, council, and

house of representatives of the province of Massachusetts. The Founder’s

Constitution, 14(9). University of Chicago Press. Retrieved November 7th, 2007


Muharrar, M., Miller, R., Burke, M. (2007). Four documents’ influence on the

declaration of independence. National Endowment for the Humanities:

EDSITEment. Retrieved November 7th, 2007 from

Roland, J. (2002). Two treaties of civil government (1690). Liberty Library. Retrieved


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