"We Hold These Truths...": Writing the Declaration of Independence

"We Hold These Truths...": Writing the Declaration of Independence
Martha Jefferson: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Three class periods


Certainly one of the most important events in the life of Martha Jefferson and all other colonists was the writing of the Declaration of Independence, which officially separated the Colonies from Great Britain.   Although several members of the Continental Congress were  on the committee to write the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson actually did the initial writing.   There is a popular story that says that during the time the Declaration was being written, Jefferson was so lonely for his wife that John Adams sent for her to come to Philadelphia from Virginia to keep him company!


After participating in this activity, students will have a greater understanding of the issues involved in creating the Declaration of Independence, particularly involving slavery, and will gain experience in reading primary documents and coming to conclusions based on evidence.

Materials Required:

A copy of the film, 1776.  Access to the Internet. 


1.  In writing (and re-writing!) the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress engaged in both a great experiment and a great failing. To begin this lesson, watch the film 1776, which can be easily obtained at any film rental establishment.  Although it is a musical, it is also quite accurate historically.  Pay particular attention to the scene in which Edward Rutledge demands that the paragraph on slavery be removed from Jefferson’s draft, and listen to the song, “Molasses to Rum.”  Then answer the following questions:
  • Who was Edward Rutledge? 
  • What was his stake in this issue?
2.  Once you have seen the film, read “Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776,” by John Adams.
  • What was the context in which the Declaration was written?
  • What did John Adams have to say as he reflected on the writing of the document some 40-odd years later? 
3.  Then read the “Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence” and the final “Declaration.”
  • What are the differences between the draft and the final document?
  • Why do you think the paragraph on slavery was removed from the final draft?
  • Was the removal justified?  On what grounds? 
4.  If C-Span were televising the room in which the delegates wrestled with the language of the Declaration, what would the cameras show? 

Extending the Lesson:

1.   As students learn more about the issues facing these delegates, one possibility would be to recreate the period from July 1 to July 4, 1776 in a simulation of the last days before the actual signing of the Declaration.
2.  Another possibility would be for students to write news accounts of these days, culminating in a simulation of a news broadcast, or, students could create a PowerPoint presentation on the issues in writing the Declaration of Independence.

Sources & Resources:


     Rough Draft of Declaration of Independence

     Final Declaration of Independence   


This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.