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Jefferson’s Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence: A Primary Source Starter

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On this blog, we’re going to be publishing a number of what we call primary source starters–quick, easy-to-use activity ideas using primary sources from the Library’s collections. There’s even a printable version that includes everything you’ll need to get started.

Thomas Jefferson’s Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence

Detail of Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence

Every teacher knows how important it is to write a good rough draft, but what about studying a rough draft?

When Thomas Jefferson was asked to write what would become the Declaration of Independence, he was careful to start with a rough draft. After he finished it, he gave it to a group of reviewers, including Benjamin Franklin and future president John Adams, who read it and suggested several changes.

Jefferson’s “original rough draught” lets students see all the scratched-out text and inserted words that Jefferson added as he and his reviewers discussed their edits.

By analyzing this primary source, though, students can think critically about the process that produced the Declaration.

Teachers can have students:

  • Compare this draft to the final version of the Declaration
  • Speculate about why different changes were proposed
  • Brainstorm ways in which the government of the United States might have been different if some changes hadn’t been made.

You can use the Library’s primary source analysis tool and teacher guides to help students analyze Jefferson’s rough draft in further depth.

For background information on the Declaration:

Creating the Declaration of Independence

Get the printable version for a copy of the primary source and the Library’s primary source analysis tools and guides.

Can you think of ways teachers could use a historic rough draft like this in the classroom? Please tell us in the comments. Like Jefferson, we’re always happy to have more ideas.

Comments (7)

  1. What a powerful tool to demonstrate to students the entire process of writing which includes editing before publishing. Too many times students only see the finished product of the Declaration not fully comprehending the big and arduous task of writing well. And thank you for easily connecting where Jefferson got his ideas from other writings, another critical part of the process. I plan to show this Internet lesson to my adult teacher-students wanting professional development connecting Common Core State Standards, primary sources, language arts, and social studies. Your lessons rock!

  2. Teachers – be sure to check out the “Interactives” tab when you go to the online exhibition site. There is a cool “translation” tool with a typed text version as you scroll over the document.

  3. Excellent primary source.
    Keep up the good work.
    All Teachers in government can use this.
    Jim Easter
    Social Studies
    Waldorf, Maryland

  4. I have used this document to help show that they road to writing this seminal document was not without arguments and egos. In the editing at one point Jefferson scratches out a phrase and puts in the margin soemthing like”Franklin’s idea”. Students research the relationship between the men writing this and find that Franklin and Jefferson did not always agree. This human element adds depth and perspective to the document.

  5. In an 8th grade class I used Jefferson’s rough draft in conjunction with the musical “1776” (Stone and Edwards). Students were amazed that independence was not a foregone conclusion. Also, they enjoyed the conflict and humor in the very human relationship of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin — these were men, not demigods. And most amazingly, students learned (and I was reminded) that our governmental process is one of compromise and adjustment, however painful that may be.

  6. Many of the links in this document are no longer active. I am bummed! This looks like an amazing lesson.

    • I checked and the links within the blog post appear to be working normally. Can you send a message through the Ask A Librarian Teacher Resources and let me know which specific items you are having problems with. Thanks.

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