What is the Purpose of Government?" Here's a question that not many 7th graders have ever thought about. They did think about it in my class last week, however, as we began to think about why the founding fathers felt the need to declare independence from Great Britain. As usual, some of the typical responses to this question include things like:
"...to control the people."
"...to keep order."
"...to keep people safe."
Some students even brought up issues of the economy, that a government is necessary for a strong economy.
And these answers came after the students had already read through the Declaration of Independence once on their own. It's important to help students really understand what they have read, to engage in a closer analysis, to model for them how to closely analyze important primary sources like this. However, it's also important to allow students to think independently. Helping students understand primary sources, and allowing them to process the information to be able to formulate their own ideas is a tough balancing act. I work hard to avoid giving my students all the answers. Much of their learning depends on the challenge of them trying to figure out the tough stuff on their own.
So, after I asked my students what they thought the purpose of government was, we looked more closely at the Declaration of Independence to figure out what Jefferson and the Founding Fathers thought was the purpose of government. I have found it's best to break primary sources up into smaller chunks so students can better understand them.
In a think, pair, share, we looked at the Natural Rights section of the DOI:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute [a] new Government... The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Students were instructed to point to the section in the passage that describes what a government is for. Of course, we also looked at Natural Rights and tried to define them (from the passage, and from a contemporary point of view). In a move to help students understand the principal of 'continuity and change,' we also discussed whether or not contemporary views would agree with the definition of Natural Rights as defined by Jefferson, whether we should add something, or take anything away. This generated some interesting conversations, and is probably fodder for an entirely different blog post! Needless to say, they understand what Jefferson thought government was for-we're still working on what they think one should be for. That's a question that we must revisit often in the History classroom.
Next up, comparing the DOI with the Constitution, as we analyze how the founding fathers set up a government based on their wishes and needs, as outlined in the DOI. Of course, before we look at the actual Constitution, I will give my students a crack at writing their own. An essential ingredient in inquiry, afterall, is to allow students the chance to grapple with the issues on their own.
Check out some of these other great ideas and resources to teach the Declaration of Independence: