History Lesson: Where’s The Declaration?

It is hard to read the Declaration of Independence without being moved by the document’s plainspoken audacity, especially recalling that it wasn’t then a “document,” but a rather blunt call to arms.  And while we tend to focus on the sublime words –  “when in the course of human events” and “self-evident” truths — of its first and second sentences, the manifesto’s list of the King’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” never ceases to amaze me.  Every year I choose a different favorite complaint. This time, in part because of the aggravations seen by some in the Common Core and the ESEA reauthorization,  it is this: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

Those guys were brilliant – and brave.

The crisis now before us is that we are creating citizens who won’t remember the revolutionaries and what they did, much less appreciate the reasons for the revolution. We know that only 17 percent of our 8th-graders scored at or above proficient on the 2010 NAEP history test. (It is somewhat reassuring, perhaps, that 62% of them were able to identify the Declaration as the source of “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”) But Fordham took us into the heart of darkness earlier this year with its report, The State of State U.S. History Standards, 2011, documenting the sorry state of our schools’ approach to the teaching of history.  Wrote Checker Finn and Kathleen Porter-Magee in the study’s Foreward:

The results of this rigorous analysis paint a bleak picture: A majority of states’ standards are mediocre to awful. In fact, the average grade across all states is barely a D. In twenty-eight jurisdictions — a majority of U.S. states — the history standards earn Ds or below. Eighteen earn Fs.

As I considered ways of memorializing Independence Day (I vetoed my wife’s suggestion of joining 3 million people on Manhattan’s West Side to watch the fireworks there), I decided to spend some time in front of the computer (would Thomas Jefferson have a Facebook page?) and find out what our state standards say about the Declaration of Independence; rather, what are they saying our kids should know about it.

I followed a number of the online accessible links to the state standards that are listed in each state’s review in the State of State report. Once there, I did a search for “Declaration of Independence.”   Below, I’ve listed the results from two of the grade-A states (South Carolina and California) and three of the F’s (Alaska, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania); I have recorded every mention of the document. This little exercise is not, of course, meant to be in the least comprehensive (that is what State of State is — and it should be studied by every educator), but it suggests what’s possible (the A states) and, unfortunately, what is the reality.

One of the remarkable things about so many of the standards documents that I looked at – even the good ones – is the amount of throat-clearing they do.  California, for instance, first mentions “Declaration of Independence” on page 6 of a 26-page Introduction to its quite comprehensible and comprehensive 234-page history and social studies standards (see below).  The mention is part of “framework” number 8 (there are 17 total):

This framework incorporates a multicultural perspective throughout the history–social science curriculum….  The framework embodies the understanding that the national identity, the national heritage, and the national creed are pluralistic and that our national history is the complex story of many peoples and one nation, of e pluribus unum, and of an unfinished struggle to realize the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

All fine and good, I suppose, but it is an example of an unwelcome tendency on the part of too many of our educators (as the Fordham report all to well describes) to drape their standards with excessive – and often unsophisticated – historiography; and that’s being kind. At least, as we’ll see, California gets to the nitty-gritty (and does it well, in my estimation); most states never get beyond the throat-clearing.

Without further ado… I present the “Declaration of Independence” as seen by five of our states (these are actual excerpts):

South Carolina (Fordham grade: A)

–Grade 3:  Analyze the causes of the American Revolution—including Britain’s passage of the Tea Act, the Intolerable Acts, the rebellion of the colonists, and the Declaration of Independence—and South Carolina’s role in these events.

–Grade 4:  Hypothesize about why parts of the original Declaration of Independence, especially the antislavery section, were eliminated by the full Continental Congress.

–Grade 4:   Illustrate how the ideals of equality as described in the Declaration of Independence were slow to take hold as evident in the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Acts.

–Grade 8:  Explain the interests and roles of South Carolinians in the events leading to the American Revolution, including the state’s reactions to the Stamp Act and the Tea Act; the role of Christopher Gadsden and the Sons of Liberty; and the role of the four South Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence—Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, Thomas Lynch Jr., and Thomas Heyward Jr.

–High School “Core Area”:

: Explain the impact of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution on the American colonies and on the world at large.

: Write an essay on how the decision to declare American independence from Great Britain was reached. Who was involved, what events led up to the decision, how did they decide what to include in the Declaration of Independence, and how did the colonists inform Great Britain of this declaration?

: Summarize the basic principles of American democracy including popular sovereignty, the rule of law, the balance of power, the separation of powers, limited government, federalism, and representative government as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.


California (Fordham grade:  A-)

–Grade 1:  Identify American symbols, landmarks, and essential documents, such as the flag, bald eagle, Statue of Liberty, U.S. Constitution, and Declaration of Independence, and know the people and events associated with them.

–Grade 5: This experiment was inspired by the innovative dream of building a new society, a new order for the ages, in which the promises of the Declaration of Independence would be realized.

: As the war began, young Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence with its idealistic statements that all men are created equal and that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed. Students should understand the courage required of those who signed this document because they risked their lives and property.

: To understand the continuing attraction of immigrants to the United States, students should become familiar with the tenets of the American creed by discussing the meaning of key phrases in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

: Understand the people and events associated with the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence and the document’s significance, including the key political concepts it embodies, the origins of those concepts, and its role in severing ties with Great Britain.

: Understand how the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence changed the way people viewed slavery.

–Grade 7: They also will see how the principles implicit in the Magna Carta were embodied in the English Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the American Declaration of Independence.

:  Discuss how the principles in the Magna Carta were embodied in such documents as the English Bill of Rights and the American Declaration of Independence.

–Grade 8:  Readings from the Declaration of Independence should be used to discuss these questions: What are “natural rights” and “natural law”? What did Jefferson mean when he wrote that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”? What were the “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” to which Jefferson appealed?

: They should read and discuss the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiment and compare it with the Declaration of Independence.

: Students analyze the early and steady attempts to abolish slavery and to realize the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

: Analyze the philosophy of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence, with an emphasis on government as a means of securing individual rights (e.g., key phrases such as “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”).

: Analyze the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and the success of each in implementing the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

: Students analyze the early and steady attempts to abolish slavery and to realize the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

: Discuss Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and his significant writings and speeches and their relationship to the Declaration of Independence, such as his “House Divided” speech (1858), Gettysburg Address (1863), Emancipation Proclamation (1863), and inaugural addresses (1861 and 1865).

–Grade 10:  The philosophy of natural rights and natural law on which the democratic revolutions were based should be fully discussed and analyzed, with particular attention to the language of the American Declaration of Independence.

: List the principles of the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights (1689), the American Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791).

–Grade 11:  Students analyze the significant events in the founding of the nation and its attempts to realize the philosophy of government described in the Declaration of Independence.

–Grade 12:  In addition, students should study the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation for deeper understanding of the fundamental principles and moral values of American democracy.

: Explain how the U.S. Constitution reflects a balance between the classical republican concern with promotion of the public good and the classical liberal concern with protecting individual rights; and discuss how the basic premises of liberal constitutionalism and democracy are joined in the Declaration of Independence as “self-evident truths.” [This is a no-no. The actual words in the Declaration are: “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”]

: When appropriate to the comprehension of pupils, instructional materials shall include a copy of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Education Code Section 60043).


Connecticut (Fordham grade:  F)  In all of 28 pages of dense type K-12 social studies standards, not a single mention of the Declaration.


Alaska (here and here)(Fordham grade: F)  Poor Alaska. It has managed to create a nearly indecipherable gumbo – all subjects, all grades — in these two documents – one, 144 pages and the other, a collection of dozens of files, unknowable — and mention the Declaration only once.  Best to defer to Fordham’s assessors, who wrote,  “The content standards, however, do not actually specify content. Instead, they each describe four to seven broad and abstract goals. In history, for example, one of the four stated goals calls for students to “understand historical themes through factual knowledge of time, places, ideas, institutions, cultures, people, and events.” Then, within each such goal, the standards describe (again, broadly) the skills that students must master to meet the stated goal.”


Pennsylvania This should be an embarrassment: The Keystone state’s “academic standards for history” are all of 18 pages long and nothing to write home about – much less send home.  But at least this state, whose City of Brotherly Love gave birth to it, managed at least two mentions of the Declaration:

–Grade 3:  Identify and describe primary documents, material artifacts and historic sites important in United States history.

:  Documents (e.g., Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights)

Don’t cry for me, Argentina.  But I do hope that a few American policymakers and educators spend some time today considering how to teach our youth the significance of the 1,322 words those 56 guys mailed off to Britain this day in 1776.  And lest we think these folks were prudes, I will end with this, from Modern Drunkard Magazine, a little-known “fact” that probably won’t make it into any of the state standards:

What we are not told [about the founders], and I think we can guess why, is that booze played a large part in the lives of our most popular Revolutionary heroes. Like it or not, the American Revolution happened hand-in-hand with bouts of awe-inspiring drunkenness and the United States is a nation built upon intoxication.

That explains it.

–Peter Meyer

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