Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How Do You Teach the Declaration of Independence?

I usually teach it during one of the seminar days in my United States History to 1865 survey course.  I work with the students in trying to discern the so-called "original intent" of the document (a foreign policy statement).  We discuss the British intellectual and political context of the document. And then I remind them that I could conceivably give them an exam question that lists all the grievances in the document and asks them to explain the meaning of those grievances based on what they know about the period between 1765 and 1776.

Joseph Adelman reads the Declaration of Independence to his class.  This, after all, was the way most people in 1776 were first exposed to it.  I like it! Here is a taste of his recent post at The Junto:

Do I try, therefore, to convince students that Jefferson and Congress cynically lied about their commitment to inalienable rights in the Declaration? No, not at all. But by putting the document into a broader context, I suggest that they need to ask questions about what the Declaration meant and why it was structured the way that it was. (This differs, in both verb tense and angle, from the perspective of a political philosopher who seeks enduring meaning. I don’t think that’s my job either, most of the time.)

I do assign the Declaration on the syllabus, and when students arrive, I pull a simple trick to change how they encounter it. I give them a brief synopsis of the early months of 1776 and the push for independence (including the publication of Common Sense and essentially a synthesis of Pauline Maier’s argument about local moves for independence), make one cutting joke about John Adams’ poor prediction skills (I cannot resist, despite teaching in Massachusetts), and then ask students to stand up. Many people first encountered the Declaration, I note, not by reading it in a history textbook, but by hearing it—at their church, in a town square, at a public celebration. And then we read it. What could be more patriotic?

I also ran across a nice post on teaching the Declaration of Independence written by Jonathan Dresner, a world history professor at Pittsburg State University.  Dresner discusses how he incorporates the document into his World History course.  Here is a taste:

When we talk about the Declaration, it serves as focal evidence for talking about the American Revolution, and I talk about historiography. (I talk about historiography a lot in World History, as it turns out, but my favorite bits are this one on the US Revolution and the Fall of Rome, where the historiography just layers and layers….) There are many ways to see the US Revolution — I’m increasingly fond of the “creole” generational theory, myself, as it helps situate it in the context of the Latin American revolutions, and connects it to post-colonialism, a little — and I point out that there’s evidence for most of them right in the text of the Declaration itself. 

In particular, I raise the question of just how revolutionary the American Revolution was. The famous preamble is a classic statement of Enlightenment principles about humanity and government, which suggests the power of new ideas and real change. The body of the document, though, lists grievances based, in large part, on the earlier English Bill of Rights, and the structure of the whole Declaration follows closely on that example, which suggests less revolutionary aims and more an attempt to conserve rights already in existence against changing circumstances. And, of course, I have to talk about the Seven Years’ War, the tax and mercantilist policies which were driving much of the tension between the colonies and the Crown, and the extent to which many of Founding Fathers were involved in import and export related businesses.