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A key component of any culture is governance. Our shared culture as citizens of the United States is influenced by the values in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. This lesson fosters an understanding of these documents and their impact on the daily lives of Americans.

  • Students will identify basic beliefs and ideals stemming from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

  • Students will discuss the significance of these documents in promoting democratic ideals, protecting civil liberties and fostering our understanding of America as a nation.


    Materials: Copies of the following handouts: Declaration of Independence, Our Shared Beliefs as Americans, Preamble to the Constitution, and The Bill of Rights and Selected Amendments, current newspapers, chart paper and markers or chalkboard and chalk

    Time: At least two class periods

Techniques and Skills

Reading skills, research skills, large-group discussion, small-group work, reaching consensus

Key Words
Amendment, preamble just (adj.), domestic, defense, welfare, representative, non-transferable, self-evident, equal, inalienable, life, liberty, justice, tranquility, posterity, equity, belief, ideal, democracy, pursuit, literally, contradict


Part I: The Declaration of Independence

1. Prior to class, read the introduction to the Declaration of Independence. Be prepared to discuss the following themes with students: (1) supreme power vested in the people or their elected representatives; (2) all men are created equal; (3) nontransferable or birthrights; and (4) the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

2. Distribute copies of the Declaration of Independence handout to the class.

3. Have the students read the handout.

4. Write the following themes on chalkboard or chart paper:

    Supreme power rests with the people or their elected representatives.

    All men are created equal.

    Nontransferable rights.

    The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

5. Use the following questions to discuss the document:

  • Why do you think the writers of the Declaration of Independence believed that supreme power should be given to the people or their elected representatives?

  • What are some ways that people exercise their power in government?

  • What do you think is meant by the phrase "all men are created equal?"

  • What was the role of women during the time period that the Declaration of Independence was written?

  • Do you think that the ideas presented in the Declaration of Independence were intended to extend to women, or do you think that the phrase "all men are created equal" was meant literally? Explain your answer.

  • How could slavery exist in a society where all men were created equal?

  • Why do you think that the authors of the Declaration of Independence included that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were nontransferable?

  • Why is it important for government to protect people's safety and happiness? Is this possible?

6. Distribute the Our Shared Beliefs as Americans handout. Have students write Y (Yes) by each statement they think most Americans believe or N (No) next to each statement that they think most Americans do not believe.

7. As a large group, or in small groups, have students discuss their responses to the statements. In addition, have students discuss whether or not there are beliefs on the list that most Americans would say they share even though their actions will oftentimes contradict what they say.

Modified Procedure: Have the students write an essay about the role of government in protecting personal equality and individual rights.

Alternative Strategies and Procedures:

1. Have students research why the Declaration of Independence was written. Their research should also include what life was like in 1776, how the country was governed, who was able to vote, own property, go to school or start a business. Have students compare the society of 1776 to today's.

2. In small groups, have students rewrite the Declaration of Independence using modern-day language, gender-neutral pronouns and so forth. Have groups share their revised documents with the class and explain the rationale for the changes they made.

3. Have students research how historical events (e.g., the French Revolution) and prominent writers of that era (e.g., Thomas Paine) influenced the founders' decision to write the Declaration of Independence.

(This lesson was based upon "Our Shared Beliefs as Americans," The Wonderful World of Difference, Copyright 1986, Anti-Defamation League.)

Part II: The Constitution

1. Read and be able to discuss with students the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and additional Amendments XIII, XIY, XV, XIX, XXVI. Have several newspapers available for students to use during this part of the lesson.

2. Distribute the Preamble handout to students. Have one of the students read the Preamble aloud.

3. Write the following words and phrases on the chalkboard or on chart paper:

    general welfare
    common defense

4. Divide the students into small groups. Assign one of the words or phrases to each group [NOTE: Several groups will be working with the same word/phrase.I After each group has selected a recorder, instruct students to work together to develop a working definition of the word or phrase. They should also describe the role of government in providing practical applications of these concepts.

5. After all groups have had an opportunity to complete the task, have each group present its ideas to the class.

6. Have students remain in their small groups and distribute the Bill of Rights and Selected Amendments handout. Have students compare the Bill of Rights and the additional Amendments to the ideas in the Preamble. Identify which Amendments match which concepts and/or provide for their implementation.

7. While the students are still in their small groups, give each group a newspaper and have students search for items related to the Bill of Rights. Circle those articles to share with the large group.

8. Have each group share the articles circled in the newspaper, explaining which Amendment they believe the article illustrated.

9. Draw three columns on the chalkboard or on chart paper. In column 1, write "No Bill of Rights"; in column 2, write "No XIII, XIY, XV, XIX or XXVI Amendments"; and, in column 3, write "Bill of Rights and Amendments." Start with column 1 and ask the students what a society without the Bill of Rights would be like. Write their ideas under the column 1 heading. Move to column 2 and have students brainstorm what a society without Amendments XIII, XIV, XV, XIX, and X)(VI would be like; write their ideas in this column. Finally, ask students to brainstorm a list of rights protected by the Bill of Rights and Amendments XIII, XIV, XV, XIX, and XXVI, and write responses in this column. Compare the lists.

Modified Procedure: Divide students into small groups. Have each group decide if they could only have five of the 10 Amendments, which would they choose. Instruct groups to come to consensus on the top five, ranking in order of importance. Have each group share its ranking with the class and the reasons for their choices. Compare the groups' responses.

Alternative Strategies and Procedures:

On July 11, 1988, the United States Congress passed a resolution to acknowledge the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution. The resolution reads in part:

    To acknowledge the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution and to reaffirm the continuing government-to-government relationship between Indian tribes and the United States established in the Constitution.

    Whereas the original framers of the Constitution, including, most notably, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, are known to have greatly admired the concepts of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy;

    Whereas the confederation of the original Thirteen colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself....

1. Have students research the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and prepare a report about the government, structure and values of the Confederacy. Compare the political system of the Iroquois Confederacy to the U.S. Constitution. Have selected students present their research findings and reports to the class. Compare and contrast the values, beliefs and practices of U.S. society and the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

2. Have students continue checking newspapers and magazines for articles that illustrate that the Bill of Rights is a "living" document. Identify a bulletin board where the articles can be posted. Review and discuss articles periodically.

3. Research historical events surrounding Amendments XIV, XV, XIX or XXVI and report findings to the class or have students prepare a time line that illustrates when Amendments XIV, XV, XIX and XXVI were ratified in the context of other historical events.

4. Explain to students that there have been polls that indicate that if today's electorate were to vote on the Bill of Rights, it would not pass. Using secret ballots, have students vote on the Bill of Rights and each of the Amendments. Post the results and discuss. Conduct similar polls with family members, classmates and school personnel and discuss the results.

Printable Student Handouts

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