October Highlight: "With the Declaration of Independence"

Research HighlightsThis month, the Declaration Resources Project is launching a new opportunity for teachers. We are asking How Do You Teach the Declaration of Independence? and incorporating teachers' responses into a new resources page on our website. One of the most popular ways to teach the Declaration of Independence is to introduce students to contextual materials, ranging from the works of Enlightenment thinkers to Thomas Jefferson's rough draft to What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? This is not a new trend; in fact, there is a tradition of printing the Declaration of Independence with other texts that dates back just about to July 4th. Sometimes these texts inform reading of the Declaration, and sometimes the Declaration informs reading of these other texts. In this research highlight, we present a sampling of the contextual print tradition of the Declaration of Independence.

Paired with Commentary

Just days after the Declaration of Independence was approved, Robert Bell printed the text in The Genuine Principles of the Ancient Saxon, or English Constitution, written by someone using the pseudonym Demophilus. This seemingly last-minute addition to the volume is the first instance of the Declaration of Independence being printed with other relevant texts. The conclusion of the book reads,

"The events which have given birth to this mighty revolution; and will vindicate the provisions that shall be wisely made against our ever again relapsing into a state of bondage and misery, cannot be better set forth than in the following Declaration of AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE."



Paired with History

During and after the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence was printed on both sides of the Atlantic in commentaries and histories on the war. For example, the Rev. James Murray of Newcastle, England includes the Declaration in the second volume of An Impartial History of the Present War in America; containing An Account of its Rise and Progress, The Political Springs thereof, with its various Successes and Disappointments on both sides. Murray offers the following commentary before the Declaration, which is labelled, "Reasons assigned by the Continental Congress, for the North American Colonies and Provinces withdrawing their allegiance to the King of Great Britain."

"The colonists who had hitherto deferred the project of independency, which was suggested to them by the measures of the parliament, were now drive to this measure by the violent proceedings that have been already mentioned. They found that they were now to be persecuted with all the vengeance that the government could inflict, and that while they remained in a state of dependence upon Great Britain, no nation could afford them any assistance. They therefore came to a resolution to declare themselves independent states, and to renounce all allegiance to the British government, and all political connection with the mother country. In their declaration of independency they gave the reasons of their proceedings, and set forth to the world the grievances they had long complained of without being heard. Their own words will best shew their reasons and sentiments upon the subject."

After the war, and especially after the Constitution, broader histories of North America or the area that became the United States were published, with the Declaration of Independence included. 



Paired with Founding Documents

The Declaration of Independence is frequently considered as a "founding document" or even a "Charter of Freedom" along with the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. From the very beginning, the Declaration was included in printings of congressional journals, state constitutions, and national constitutions (first the Articles of Confederation, then the U.S. Constitution). In December 29th, 1780, the Continental Congress resolved, "That a committee of three be appointed to collect and cause to be published 200 correct copies of the declaration of independence, the articles of confederation and perpetual union, the alliances between these United States and his Most Christian Majesty, with the constitutions or forms of government of the several states, to be bound together in boards." Thomas Bee, John Witherspoon (this Google Books version is Witherspoon's copy), and Oliver Wolcott were selected for this committee, and Philadelphia printer Francis Bailey published The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America; the Declaration of Independence; the Articles of Confederation between the said states; the Treaties between His Most Christian Majesty and the United States of America in 1781. Each of these texts are offered as official record, without commentary, but together, they tell the story in-progress of the establishment of the United States. These types of volumes persisted after the ratification of the Constitution.


Paired with Laws

In 1791, under the direction of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Laws of the United States of America were printed, and the Declaration of Independence found its way into these volumes. In Andrew Brown's edition, for example, the Declaration is included in the Appendix, "Containing such Acts of the Congress under the Confederation, as may be thought most important to be generally known in the administration of the present Government."

The Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and records of the Continental Congress were all in the Department of State at this time, and a note from Jefferson at the beginning of the volume certifies that each page has "been carefully collated by sworn clerks, with the original rolls deposited in the office of the Secretary of State, and have been rendered literally conformable therewith."

In the 1790s and well into the 19th century, the Declaration of Independence was also included in volumes of state laws. 



Paired with Jefferson's Draft

Out of the Committee of Five, Thomas Jefferson was tasked with drafting a Declaration of Independence. His draft was edited by the Committee and then presented to Congress, where certain passages were changed or eliminated. Jefferson's authorship was well known by the time of his presidency, and the tradition of comparing Jefferson's rough draft with the final engrossed version began in the early 19th century. Here is an example from the Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, edited by his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph and printed in 1829, three years after Jefferson's death. This comparison is copied from Jefferson's Autobiography, written in 1821 but recording his early life and, most importantly, the events of 1776.



Paired with Documents to Inspire Civic Agency

As mentioned, after the ratification of the Constitution, reference books containing national and state laws, treaties, and the Declaration of Independence were frequently produced. The 19th century saw the rise of reference books intentionally produced to foster civic agency. Take a look at The American Citizen's Manual of Reference: Being a Comprehensive Historical, Statistical, Topographical, and Political View of the United States of North America, and of the Several States and Territories, published by W. Hobart Hadley in 1840. This volume includes not just the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, but also Washington's inaugural and farewell addresses, Jefferson's inaugural address, biographies of the presidents, an explanation of the the Great Seal, statistics of the government and military, the value of foreign currency in U.S. dollars, the population of the U.S., and lists ranging from the number of universities to the number of rail roads and canals. Reference books such as this were meant to inform the average citizen about not just the history of the country, but the present and future as well. 



Paired with Other Pieces of Prose

Teaching of the Declaration of Independence should not be limited to history or government classes. It is a piece of concise, well-written prose that is also relevant in reading and language arts classes. In the 19th century, "readers" were published, which included important and eloquent documents to be read by students. The Declaration of Independence was included in The North American Reader, compiled by Lyman Cobb and printed in 1836. In the preface, Cobb notes, "the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States have been inserted, with appropriate questions annexed, that the teacher may frequently examine the scholars, by way of testing their knowlege of these subjects, a knowledge of which is of the highest importance to every citizen of this country." Just before the Declaration, which is the 216th lesson in the book, Cobb addresses teachers directly: 

"To TEACHERS.--It is presumed that every teacher is fully sensible how important a knowledge of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Political Definitions, is to all the citizens of the United States. It is, therefore, hoped and believed, that every teacher will require the scholars not only to read them as ordinary reading lessons, but that he will frequently question them, for the purpose of testing their knowledge of them, and to excite attention and inquiry."

So, how do you teach the Declaration of Independence? Share your story with us, and see it posted on our new resources page soon!




By Emily Sneff

Last | Research Highlights | Next