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Lesson Plan The Declaration of Independence: Created Equal?


This lesson focuses on a few key concepts of the Declaration of Independence, beginning with the phrase "All men are created equal." Students gain an appreciation of Thomas Jefferson's efforts to deal with the complex issues of equality and slavery in the Declaration of Independence.


Students will be able to:

  • develop a working definition of what it means for everyone to be equal;
  • interpret the phrase "All Men Are Created Equal" in the context of the Declaration of Independence;
  • compare their definition of equality to the definition Jefferson was using in the Declaration of Independence; and
  • develop a rationale for Jefferson's usage of the phrase based on his life and historical context.

Time Required

3-4 class periods

Lesson Preparation


Lesson Procedure

Day One

  1. Review the basic purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Today begins the examination of certain key concepts of the document.
  2. Begin with a brainstorming activity on the meaning of equality. Students brainstorm individually at first. After a few minutes, divide into groups of 4-5. Students share interpretations of the word within each group. Each student should add two additional interpretations of equality to his or her list for variety.
  3. Bring everyone back to discuss the various meanings developed both individually and within the group.
  4. After discussion, introduce the phrase "all men are created equal" from the Declaration of Independence. Return to groups to interpret what Jefferson meant by this phrase in the document.
  5. Discuss as a whole the interpretations of this phrase.
  6. Next consider, "Who was not represented by this statement?" Allow groups time to discuss.
  7. Compare definitions from the various groups as to their actual meaning and the interpreted meaning of this phrase. Some key questions to ask:
    • What was Jefferson's intended purpose for the phrase?
    • Were there ethical considerations?
    • Could he justify such a statement for inclusion in the Declaration of Independence?

Day Two

  1. Each student picks a card that has either "for" or "against" written on it. The card also includes a number that designates the student's group for the rest of the lesson. Depending on the size of the class you may have four to six groups in each period (half for Jefferson and half against Jefferson.)
  2. Direct students to the Was It Compromise or Hypocrisy? Web page. Students enter the side they are supporting - for or against Jefferson. Each link leads students to sources necessary to prepare their evidence.
  3. Students gather information from the web links and additional searching of Library of Congress online collections as needed, record their findings on their Evidence Compilation Sheets. Students take this information to their respective groups. Each team is responsible for presenting their respective evidence sheets to the rest of the class. The presentation may be done using overheads, chalk or white board in the room, or butcher paper that can be hung on the wall of the classroom.
  4. After reviewing all of the evidence for both sides, discuss the pros and cons of each side of the argument. If desired, take a class vote on what was meant by the phrase, "All men are created equal."
  5. To culminate this lesson, each student drafts a letter addressed to the opposite position detailing his or her findings and viewpoints. Consider the following when making a rubric for the letter:
    • Evidence presented in arguments is thorough and accurate.
    • Letter presents appropriate viewpoint of author.
  6. In addition, a discussion should be held on how we should interpret the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence. What did it mean in 1776? What does it mean today?


  1. Break the class into two groups based on Jefferson's intentions regarding equality in the Declaration of Independence. One group believes Jefferson meant all men, while the other group believes Jefferson meant all white men. Find evidence in the Library's online collections to support each position.
  2. Rewrite the Declaration of Independence (or portions of it) to fit a contemporary society.
  3. Stage a mock trial with the students playing the roles of Jefferson and others. The Library of Congress primary sources serve as evidence to be presented in a trial. Include a judge, witnesses, jury, defense lawyers, and prosecution.
  4. One individual student could portray Thomas Jefferson and answer questions raised by the rest of class on the phrase "all men are created equal."

Lesson Evaluation

  • Each student will be evaluated based upon the completeness and accuracy of data gathered and presented.
  • Another part of the evaluation will include the drafting of a letter.


Mike Larson and Doug Hyde


For Jefferson

Was it compromise or hypocrisy?

The People v. Jefferson

You have been appointed as a law clerk to begin the difficult task of defending Thomas Jefferson in his suit with the A.T.J.S. of A. (Anti-Thomas Jefferson Society of America).

Before you begin, review the charges made by the A.T.J.S. of A.

You will need to gather as much evidence as you can to show that the claims of the A.T.J.S. of A. are unfounded and malicious.

You will need to find examples in letters he wrote, his actions, and communications that will exonerate Thomas Jefferson of the charges leveled against him.

At stake is Jefferson's estate, reputation, and political future as a leader in the United States.

It is imperative when you find evidence to support Jefferson that you write it down as close to word-for-word as possible.

The following sources will provide some assistance in your efforts to gather favorable evidence. There will also be a few sources present that WILL NOT paint such a positive view of Jefferson. However, for you to defend him, you will also need to see arguments that the opposition will present in the case against Jefferson.

Here is a list of the sources. You will determine the usefulness of each.

Defense Research Links:

Gather evidence in SUPPORT of Thomas Jefferson. Be sure to cite your sources for each piece of evidence you find.

Against Jefferson

Was it compromise or hypocrisy?

A.T.J.S. of A. Anti-Thomas Jefferson Society of America

We of the A.T.J.S. of A. do hereby declare that Thomas Jefferson will be indicted for crimes against humanity!

We do therefore make the following charges:

  • Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal even though he owned more than 200 slaves at his home in Monticello.
  • In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson makes inflammatory and derogatory remarks directed against African Americans.
  • He makes no mention of the rights of African Americans in the Declaration of Independence.
  • He has not released all of his slaves in accordance with the prevailing sentiment that slavery was morally and ethically wrong in the period after the Declaration of Independence.
  • He has denied African Americans the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness accorded in the Declaration of Independence.
  • He mentions injuries done to the colonists by King George III, but we assert that Mr. Jefferson was only referring to white colonists in the colonies.

Therefore, we, the members of the A.T.J.S. of A. do hereby bring forth a civil lawsuit against the person and estate of Thomas Jefferson. We will find the best counsel and see to it that justice be done. Our organization is dedicated to the eradication of Thomas Jefferson as a Founding Father, President, and "Enlightenment" figure.

Our charge is to gather evidence AGAINST Thomas Jefferson. Some of the sources to be used include:

Gather evidence AGAINST Thomas Jefferson. Be sure to cite your sources for each piece of evidence you find.