The Declaration of Independence Lesson Plan

New Ideas in Britain

  1. What was the Glorious Revolution and what ideas emerged from it that affected the thinking of all Englishmen?
  2. What are the key ideas raised by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government?
  3. What are Republican values and why were they considered vital to creating a superior basis on which to found a government?

At the time when the colonies were being settled, there were many new ideas that were affecting government in Europe. Many of these ideas about human rights and liberties helped to form the ideas of what it meant to be American before 1776.

Historical Roots in Britain

The colonies were influenced by events in their homeland, England, ever after most of the colonies were well established in North America. In 1686, Eighty years after Jamestown was settled and sixty-five years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, a lot was going on in the home country. At this time, there was a conflict, known as the Glorious Revolution, being played out in England. Mostly, it was a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics. But there was also a major political issue at hand. The British began to question the balance of power between the King, who ruled by Divine Right, and Parliament, which represented the commoners and the nobility.

glorious-revolution
Painting of William and Mary accepting the Declaration of Rights (Bill of Rights) at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall Palace in February 1689

The Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights

James II, a Catholic, became king in 1685. One of his goals was to promote religious equality for Roman Catholics in Britain. King James II was so determined to gain power in Parliament that he began firing hundreds of officials who opposed him and tried to change the voting laws so that only politicians who supported him could be elected, alienating both major political parties in Parliament. He even arrested clergymen who disagreed with him. After his son James was born, key leaders of both political parties created a plan to remove him from the throne. The British people were afraid that if James II's son became the next king, the strict reign of the Catholics would not end.

At this time, James II's daughter, Mary, was married to a Protestant called William of Orange. Before the birth of James' son, she was heir to the throne and if James II were removed, she would be queen. In November 1688, a fleet commanded by William invaded England and James II fled to France, where he remained for the rest of his life. In March 1689, both William and Mary were elected as joint monarchs.

Parliament also wrote a Declaration of Rights, presenting it to William and Mary along with their invitation to become joint sovereigns, that later became the Bill of Rights in December 1689. This document described the rights that all citizens of England should have. It also described how the monarchs and Parliament should work together to form laws, decide upon taxes, and run the military.

In the Bill of Rights, Parliament listed the "true, ancient and indubitable rights and liberties" of all Englishmen including:

  • That the power of suspending the laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal;
  • That the power of dispensing with laws or the execution of laws by regal authority, as it hath been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal;
  • That levying money for or to the use of the Crown [taxation] by pretence of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, is illegal;
  • That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal;
  • That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against the law;
  • That the subjects may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law;
  • That election of members of Parliament ought to be free;
  • That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament;
  • That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted;
  • That jurors ought to be duly impaneled and returned, and jurors which pass upon men in trials for high treason ought to be freeholders;

The Bill of Rights was important because, for the first time in Britain, the people restricted the rights of the king and queen. By doing this, they abolished "absolute monarchism" and began to explore new types of governance.

If you were William or Mary why do you think you'd agree to this? Then, in your own words, explain what each of the articles listed above in the Bill of Rights says.

SKILL: Analyze

John Locke and the Social Contract of Government

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John Locke

John Locke was a British scholar who was a friend of Isaac Newton. Locke wrote about philosophy, science and politics. One of his works was called the Second Treatise of Government. It described a new political philosophy that inspired Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote that John Locke, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton were "the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception." He thought that their ideas about science and philosophy were truly innovative.

Locke's thoughts about government were often discussed among the early leaders and general population of the colonies. His work included a forceful argument against "absolute monarchy" — or the idea that kings had complete power of their subject. When he wrote about this, absolute monarchy was the main form of government in Europe and most everywhere else in the world. Locke also believed that in Nature, all men are created in a state of perfect freedom and equality. These ideas were central to the ideas that were written into the Declaration many years later. For example, he wrote that a good government works with the people and tries to preserve their fundamental rights to life, liberty and property. Further, Locke wrote that the citizens and their government should have a social contract. In it, citizens gave up certain rights and liberties so that they could have protection under rules of law that everyone agreed to. Locke believed that if a government broke this contract, then their citizens had the right to revolt and replace it.

If this sounds familiar, it is because Jefferson uses almost the same argument in the Declaration of Independence. When the British denied the colonists their natural, inalienable rights, they broke the social contract. After that, the colonists believed it was their right to create a new government.


Excerpts from John Locke’s "The Second Treatise of Civil Government," 1690

Sec. 4. TO understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

Sec. 6. But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our's. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

Sec. 122. But submitting to the laws of any country, living quietly, and enjoying privileges and protection under them, makes not a man a member of that society: this is only a local protection and homage due to and from all those, who, not being in a state of war, come within the territories belonging to any government, to all parts whereof the force of its laws extends. But this no more makes a man a member of that society, a perpetual subject of that common-wealth, than it would make a man a subject to another, in whose family he found it convenient to abide for some time; though, whilst he continued in it, he were obliged to comply with the laws, and submit to the government he found there. And thus we see, that foreigners, by living all their lives under another government, and enjoying the privileges and protection of it, though they are bound, even in conscience, to submit to its administration, as far forth as any denison; yet do not thereby come to be subjects or members of that commonwealth. Nothing can make any man so, but his actually entering into it by positive engagement, and express promise and compact. This is that, which I think, concerning the beginning of political societies, and that consent which makes any one a member of any common-wealth.

Sec. 122. But submitting to the laws of any country, living quietly, and enjoying privileges and protection under them, makes not a man a member of that society: this is only a local protection and homage due to and from all those, who, not being in a state of war, come within the territories belonging to any government, to all parts whereof the force of its laws extends. But this no more makes a man a member of that society, a perpetual subject of that common-wealth, than it would make a man a subject to another, in whose family he found it convenient to abide for some time; though, whilst he continued in it, he were obliged to comply with the laws, and submit to the government he found there. And thus we see, that foreigners, by living all their lives under another government, and enjoying the privileges and protection of it, though they are bound, even in conscience, to submit to its administration, as far forth as any denison; yet do not thereby come to be subjects or members of that commonwealth. Nothing can make any man so, but his actually entering into it by positive engagement, and express promise and compact. This is that, which I think, concerning the beginning of political societies, and that consent which makes any one a member of any common-wealth.

Sec. 131. But though men, when they enter into society, give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature, into the hands of the society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative, as the good of the society shall require; yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property; (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse) the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend farther, than the common good; but is obliged to secure every one's property, by providing against those three defects above mentioned, that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy. And so whoever has the legislative or supreme power of any common-wealth, is bound to govern by established standing laws, promulgated and known to the people, and not by extemporary decrees; by indifferent and upright judges, who are to decide controversies by those laws; and to employ the force of the community at home, only in the execution of such laws, or abroad to prevent or redress foreign injuries, and secure the community from inroads and invasion. And all this to be directed to no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people.

Sec. 149. THOUGH in a constituted common-wealth, standing upon its own basis, and acting according to its own nature, that is, acting for the preservation of the community, there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate, yet the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them: for all power given with trust for the attaining an end, being limited by that end, whenever that end is manifestly neglected, or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited, and the power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security. And thus the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of any body, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish, or so wicked, as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject: for no man or society of men, having a power to deliver up their preservation, or consequently the means of it, to the absolute will and arbitrary dominion of another; when ever any one shall go about to bring them into such a slavish condition, they will always have a right to preserve, what they have not a power to part with; and to rid themselves of those, who invade this fundamental, sacred, and unalterable law of self-preservation, for which they entered into society. And thus the community may be said in this respect to be always the supreme power, but not as considered under any form of government, because this power of the people can never take place till the government be dissolved.

Sec. 171. Secondly, Political power is that power, which every man having in the state of nature, has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors, whom the society hath set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good, and the preservation of their property: now this power, which every man has in the state of nature, and which he parts with to the society in all such cases where the society can secure him, is to use such means, for the preserving of his own property, as he thinks good, and nature allows him; and to punish the breach of the law of nature in others, so as (according to the best of his reason) may most conduce to the preservation of himself, and the rest of mankind. So that the end and measure of this power, when in every man's hands in the state of nature, being the preservation of all of his society, that is, all mankind in general, it can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions; and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved; but a power to make laws, and annex such penalties to them, as may tend to the preservation of the whole, by cutting off those parts, and those only, which are so corrupt, that they threaten the sound and healthy, without which no severity is lawful. And this power has its original only from compact and agreement, and the mutual consent of those who make up the community.

Sec. 222. The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence. Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who. have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.

Sec. 225. Secondly, I answer, such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be born by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected; and without which, ancient names, and specious forms, are so far from being better, that they are much worse, than the state of nature, or pure anarchy; the inconveniencies being all as great and as near, but the remedy farther off and more difficult.

Sec. 240. Here, it is like, the common question will be made, Who shall be judge, whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust? This, perhaps, ill-affected and factious men may spread amongst the people, when the prince only makes use of his due prerogative. To this I reply, The people shall be judge; for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him, have still a power to discard him, when he fails in his trust? If this be reasonable in particular cases of private men, why should it be otherwise in that of the greatest moment, where the welfare of millions is concerned, and also where the evil, if not prevented, is greater, and the redress very difficult, dear, and dangerous?


What might some of the specific liberties and rights that Locke would say make a government illegitimate, if they were taken away from the citizenry?

Commonwealth Men and Republican Values

By declaring their independence, the colonists started a new path. Their collective ideas about the way government should protect its citizens destroyed the idea of monarchy. These ideas were called Republican. The development of Republicanism was very significant, since monarchs had ruled most of the world for over a thousand years. But just what were these Republican principles and where did they come from?

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Marcus Tullius Cicero

All educated people at this time studied the ancient republics: Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and early Rome. The Roman writers Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus and others introduced the ideas and values that became known as Republicanism.

By the middle of the 18th century, many cultures in Europe and Britain were familiar with Republicanism. These ideals stressed honesty and patriotism instead of selfishness and fakery. According to classical Republicanism, man could achieve his greatest moral fulfillment by participating in a self-governing republic. In other words, participation in government was the ultimate life satisfaction. Liberty was only fully realized when men were virtuous — which meant being willing to sacrifice your own interests for the sake of the community or serving in public office without being paid. The idea behind virtue was to create equal, active and independent citizens. Anyone not willing to practice these ideas was considered corrupt.

catos-letters
Image of Cover of Cato’s Letters by John Trechard and Thomas Gordon

In the beginning of the 18th century, a group of highly outspoken political thinkers in Britain wrote and published 144 essays called "Cato's Letters." The collection was named after Cato, a famous Roman. John Trechard and Thomas Gordon were the most well known members of the group. These men were concerned about the lack of virtue in British political life and wanted change. They argued that virtue was crucial to a successful republic. They promoted free thought and free speech, separation of power, religious freedom, rotation in office, and government regulation. At the time, the ideas in the Cato Letters were very controversial. But, they were also among the most popular writings in the colonies. They were widely read by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, and Washington. Here are a few brief quotes from the letters:

  • "...general liberty...is certainly the right of all mankind..."
  • "...brand those as enemies to human society, who are enemies to equal and impartial liberty."
  • "Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together."
  • "The defense of liberty is a noble, a heavenly office..."
  • "Few men have been desperate enough to attack openly, and barefaced, the liberties of a free people...Even when the enterprise is begun and visible, the end must be hid, or denied."
  • "...the people would constantly be in the interests of truth and liberty, were it not for external delusion and external force."
  • "...government executed for the good of all, and with the consent of all, is liberty; and the word government is profaned, and its meaning abused, when it signifies anything else."
  • "...the inestimable blessing of liberty. Can we ever over-rate it... It is the parent of virtue, pleasure, plenty, and security..."
  • "In all contentions between liberty and power, the latter has almost always been the aggressor."
  • "...I know not what treason is, if sapping and betraying the liberties of a people be not treason..."

Many Englishmen felt that Britain was already a republic, because of Parliament. There was supposed to be a balance of power between the King, and Lords and Commons. When colonial leaders started to challenge the monarchy, they just thought they were acting like good Englishmen should. With the Declaration of Independence, the colonists were going to take Republicanism to the next step.

If a republic requires virtuous citizens, do you think that republics can work at all? Do you think people are virtuous enough to make government work the way Romans thought it would?

Of the views expressed by Locke and the ideals of Republicanism, which do you find more interesting? Explain why.

  1. What was the Glorious Revolution and what ideas emerged from it that affected the thinking of all Englishmen?
  2. What are the key ideas raised by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government?
  3. What are Republican values and why were they considered vital to creating a superior basis on which to found a government?
survey for ushistory.org

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