From the Declaration of Independence to the Declaration of Sentiments


Students will learn about the purpose and message of Declaration of Independence, question and discover if women had rights in Early America and analyze and compare the Declaration of Sentiments and its message and purpose.


Two to three 45/50-minute class periods. If you are crunched for time, you can cut steps 4 and 5

Ideas for how to plan:

  • Option 1: Pace the lesson over 90-180 minutes without homework
  • Option 2: DAY 1: Declaration of Independence background and discussion (step 1), DOI close read for homework (step 2); DAY 2: DOI discussions as bell activity the next class (step 3), step 4 and 5; DAY 3: step 6-8
  • Option 3: DAY 1: Declaration of Independence background and discussion (step 1), DOI close read for homework (step 2), DOI discussions (step 3), step 4 and 5 for homework; DAY 2: step 6-8

Answer Essential Historical Questions

  • What was the original intent of publishing the Declaration of Independence and how/why have its words launched reform movements throughout US history?
  • Were women in Early America free? Did the treatment of women in 19th century America live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence? Defend your position.
  • Was the Seneca Falls Convention effective in its mission? Explain your position.

Background information for the teacher (step 1):

Depending on your course curriculum, students may only have a middle school understanding of the Declaration of Independence. Therefore, it is advised to check for understanding, inform students, provide clarification and debunk common myths before you begin the lesson.

Declaration of Independence Background

The Declaration of Independence is a work of more than just one man (Thomas Jefferson) and it is not the first Declaration of Independence, many colonies and communities adopted their own declarations of Independence between April and July of 1776 and many became the preambles to newly drafted state constitutions. It was a rapid transition for American colonists to go from being proud British citizens to proclaiming independence. American colonists believed themselves to be equal to citizens living in Britain and they were proud of British freedoms that existed. However, when direct taxes were imposed on American colonists and trade laws were more tightly enforced after the French and Indian War, American colonists found these actions to be unconstitutional because they did not have direct representation in the British Parliament. From there, a fight over what kind of representation colonists had and should have played out in public fashion back and forth across the Atlantic.

Colonial political and business leaders went through steps to petition the government for change but were met with disrespect and seemly harsh consequences. Intellectuals, religious leaders and writers in America progressively became more radical in their anger toward Parliament. The Second Continental Congress was still trying to make amends with the British Empire when is sent the Olive Branch Petition to King George III in July of 1775. In the petition, the Continental Congress insisted that they did not desire independence and a war could be avoided if the King used his powers intervene in the unconstitutional decisions of Parliament. However, the King refused to receive their petition and determined that the colonies did want independence. On June 11, 1776 a committee of five was nominated (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston) to draft a national Declaration of Independence on behalf of Congress. On June 28, the committee presented its draft to all of Congress for comment and votes, but decisions were delayed while they assessed the oncoming British Naval attack. The Declaration blames the King in its grievances because by June of 1776, Congress had declared that British Parliament had no authority over them because the colonies had no direct representation; therefore, their last connection to the empire and the last person whom they had maintained loyalty to was the King. They argued that King George III was a tyrant following precedent in English history with former monarchs who were disavowed. Thomas Jefferson was the main drafter of the Declaration of Independence, but his words and ideas were inspired by a vast knowledge of British history, British common law, Enlightenment thinkers, Greek and Roman history and literature, works of Christianity and other Virginians, like George Mason. When Congress finally decided to review the draft, they had many changes and removed entire sections which Jefferson was very unhappy about, but many historians believe the public document that we know is more clear, correct and powerful.

Class discussion after background: What was the purpose of writing a national Declaration of Independence? Who was the intended audience?


  • Prove that there was no alternative to declaring independence
  • Unification/motivation for colonies and people to fight
  • To dissolve all political relationships between the British Empire and the 13 mainland American colonies
  • Declare themselves a nation, not just rebels and which opened up the opportunity for them to write their own government
  • Appeal to potential foreign allies

Does this information change the way you think about the document, why?

*For more reading on the Declaration of Independence, see America Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier.

  1. Teach students about the Declaration of Independence (DOI) and lead a short discussion about the purpose of the document (see Background information in the prerequisites section, pg 2-3 in PDF).
  2. Pass out Document A: Declaration of Independence (pgs 5-7 in PDF). Ask students to do a close read of the preamble of the DOI, skim through the grievances and close read the conclusion.
    1. If you don’t have the resources to give students a hard copy to annotate, have them download a Word version to type on and highlight. It is also possible to use Google documents to do this close read process.
    2. Suggested annotations:
      1. Underline motivational passages that serve the purpose of the document
      2. Circle or highlight potentially hypocritical or problematic passages based on what they know about American history
      3. Write three questions you have about content or purpose
      4. Star passages that you think are still relevant or important today
  3. Pair two students together (ex. shoulder partners, assigned pairs, etc.) and have them discuss their annotations and findings. After about five minutes discuss as a class.
    1. Discussion questions:
      1. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Was this statement meant for all Americans, explain? *Only meant for men who could vote—basically that no man is born with more inherited power than other (like a divine king), we should choose our leaders, people have natural rights
      2. How has the DOI been interpreted throughout US history? Has its’ purpose or use changed? For whom?
  4. Pass out or instruct students to open the “Women’s Rights in Early America” timeline and a hard copy of the evidence collection worksheet. Ask students, with their partner, to read the timeline and collect evidence as they read that supports the claim that women did have rights in Early America and the claim that women did not have rights or power. Bullet point format is ok, but students should include enough detail and dates to use in a position statement.
  5. Pose the question for discussion, “Were women in Early America free? Did the treatment of women in 19th century America live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence?” Ask students to write a short paragraph using evidence they collected, then have a short class discussion.
  6. Play the 2:37 minute clip “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Stronghold of the Fortress” for the class on a projector. It provides an introduction about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and how and why the Seneca Falls Convention was organized.
  7. Pass out Document B: The Declaration of Sentiments (pgs 8-9 in PDF) (or ask the students to download it) and a hard copy of the Declaration of Sentiments graphic organizer for each student. Students should close read the document and work on the graphic organizer with their partner. The knowledge from the timeline should help them better interpret the document.
  8. Exit slip or exit activity: Ask students to write a response to the question “Was the Seneca Falls Convention effective in its mission? Explain your position.” Or, you could ask students to stand on one side of the room if they believe the document was effective and the other side if they believe it was not and have a full class discussion. Teacher may assess the big idea paragraphs/discussion alone or choose to collect the graphic organizer and evidence collection, too to check for understanding. The essential questions would make great essay questions in a formal assessment.
Future Research / Resources

America Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier