This inquiry asks why countries declare their independence. As an integral early step in the process of becoming independent, a declaration of independence functions as an argument for why people should be free. This inquiry focuses on the argument made in the United States Declaration of Independence. With a firm understanding of the American colonists’ argument for independence, the inquiry shifts to students conducting research on declarations of independence in other parts of the Western Hemisphere.
Through this inquiry, students learn about one of the most important political arguments ever made as they compose their own argument for why the United States and other countries declared independence. In the first three formative performance tasks, students examine the American colonists’ argument in depth. The first supporting question and related formative performance task focus on the first part of the United States Declaration of Independence. Students read the text of the philosophical justifications for independence. The second supporting question and formative performance task focus on the grievances the colonists had with the British as they were laid out in the second part of the declaration. Students read the grievances and rank them according to perceived level of influence on the colonists’ decision to declare independence. The third supporting question and formative performance task move to the actual statement of independence. Students read this statement and rewrite it in their own words. The fourth supporting question and formative performance task provide students with an opportunity to examine other declarations of independence in the Western Hemisphere. The related task is structured as a research opportunity where students gather, use, and interpret evidence about declarations of independence in the Western Hemisphere other than the United States Declaration of Independence.
The Taking Informed Action activities have been embedded alongside two of the formative performance tasks and give students an opportunity to engage in a parallel examination of the United States Declaration of Independence and a modern-day independence movement.
It is important for students to understand that independence declared is not the same as independence obtained. This inquiry focuses on how groups of people made arguments for why they should be independent. Teachers will need to expand this inquiry if they want their students to learn about how independence was actually realized.
NOTE: This inquiry is expected to take four to six 40-minute class periods. The inquiry time frame could expand if teachers think their students need additional instructional experiences (i.e., supporting questions, formative performance tasks, and featured sources). Inquiries are not scripts, so teachers are encouraged to modify and adapt them to meet the needs and interests of their particular students. Resources can also be modified as necessary to meet individualized education programs (IEPs) or Section 504 Plans for students with disabilities.
Few documents in world history rival the Declaration of Independence in the power of its ideas. From the opening phrase, “When in the course of human events,” to the universal claims that all people are born equal with inalienable natural rights and that governments that violate these rights forfeit their claim to rule, the authors of the Declaration of Independence set forward a principled argument that is universally recognized and emulated throughout the world that the original 13 colonies “are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”
Many view the Declaration of Independence as a quintessential American document and a reflection of the genius of its author, Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson’s rhetorical and philosophical contributions and the timeless influence of his words are not in doubt, the intellectual origin of the ideas and words in the Declaration of Independence are more wide ranging. Jefferson borrowed heavily from a variety of philosophical and political documents. Thus, the Declaration of Independence serves as an excellent intermediary through which students can learn more about how ideas spread, evolve, and are adapted across time and cultures. Furthermore, the influence of the Declaration of Independence extends well beyond the shores of North America. David Armitage, in his book The Declaration of Independence in the World, describes a letter Jefferson wrote in 1826, the year of the 50th anniversary of the declaration, in which he stated that it was “an instrument, pregnant with our own and the fate of the world.” Armitage argues that the declaration has served as a model for other people around the world as they contemplated independence. In investigating the philosophical influences of the Declaration of Independence and viewing it in the context of the Western Hemisphere, students will develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Declaration of Independence and, more importantly, see its relevance as a living document throughout the world today.
The ideas within the Declaration of Independence did not appear out of thin air, but they were in the air. Thomas Jefferson, taking pen to paper for the five-person committee selected to draft the declaration, drew upon the Enlightenment ideas of British thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Closer to home, Jefferson was likely influenced by the writings of Thomas Paine and the dozens of statements of sentiment and declarations issued by towns, counties, colonial governments, and even public and private organizations in the years leading up to July 4, 1776.
In the years following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, countries around the world used the basic American model of declaring independence, asking for, or in some cases demanding, recognition by European sovereign powers and then defending the newly constituted nations. Dozens of countries in the Western Hemisphere gained their independence from European powers in a similar fashion, beginning with Haiti in 1804 and continuing through the first half of the 19th century. Colonies in the Spanish Empire followed this path beginning in 1808. In relatively quick fashion, more than a dozen countries in Central and South America declared their independence. Colombia was the first country in the Spanish Empire to declare independence on July 20, 1810, but it was Venezuela’s declaration on July 5, 1811, that most closely parallels the ideas and rhetoric of the United States Declaration of Independence.
It should be noted that independence for many Latin American countries was a much longer and more complex process than it was in the United States. New national boundaries formed out of the fragments of imperial Spain only to be quickly jettisoned and redrawn each time new national identities and political factions clashed. For instance, the short-lived Gran Colombia consisted of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador, in addition to parts of modern-day Peru, Brazil, and Guyana. Teachers may want to emphasize the notion that independence declared is rarely the same as independence obtained, especially as evidenced in parts of Latin America. Colombia declared independence in 1810. Venezuela declared independence in 1811. Although both would be free from Spanish rule by 1819, Venezuela would not become its own country until 1830. The Republic of Colombia was not established until after the successive collapses of Gran Colombia in 1830, the Republic of New Granada in 1858, the Granadine Confederation in 1863, and the United States of Colombia in 1886. Moreover, Panama’s separation from Colombia would not occur until 1903, nearly a century after Latin American independence movements began.
NOTE: This inquiry uses the term “Latin America” to refer to areas in the Western Hemisphere where Romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish) are spoken. Terms used in this inquiry to describe the four regions of
the Western Hemisphere are taken directly from the 5th Grade New York State Social Studies Framework: North America (Canada and the United States), Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), the Caribbean, and South America.