Teaching the Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence

Connecting the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and M.L. King’s “I Have a Dream” creates a rich, meaningful way to celebrate the Fourth of July.

The“Declaration of Independence,” the “Gettysburg Address,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are powerfully connected by three dates and five timeless words.

The Declaration of Independence is the Foundation

To teach the endurance and relevance of the Declaration of Independence throughout American history, the teacher guides the students through a process of discovering how these documents are linked by three dates, two numbers, and five words. The teacher should first become cognizant of these facts:

  • Date of each document in chronological order: 1776, 1863, 1963
  • Number of years between: 87, 100
  • First words of the Gettysburg Address: Four score and 20 years ago
  • First words of I Have a Dream: Five score years ago
  • Use in Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address, and I Have a Dream of this phrase: “All Men are Created Equal”

Gettysburg Address: Four Score and Seven Years Ago

On the board, the teacher lists the dates of the three documents in chronological order. The students write those dates at their desks. The teacher points out that the Gettysburg Address begins with the words, “four score and seven years ago.”

A score is 20 years. Have the students do the math at their desks: 4 score = 20. Adding seven equals 87.

Lincoln was speaking in 1863. Have the students subtract 87 from 1863. The answer should pop out at them: 1776! The date of the Declaration of Independence! So Abraham Lincoln connects his speech, in 1863, it directly to the Declaration of Independence, adopted in 1776. The students should begin to appreciate the continuity in American history, demonstrated by these connections. But the connection doesn’t end there. It continues, to a historic speech given in 1963, by Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King: Five Score Years Ago

Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., in 1963, as part of a centennial celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The first four words of Martin Luther King’s the speech are, “Five score years ago.”

Have the students do the math again: Five score is 5 X 20, which equals 100. He was talking in 1963. Have the students subtract 100 from 1963. The answer should again pop out at the students: 1863! The year of the Gettysburg Address!

King deliberately connects his words to Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation the same year he gave the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg Address was intended to dedicate a portion of one of the bloodiest battlefields in the Civil War as a cemetery for the thousands and thousands of soldiers that died there in the Civil War that ended slavery in America.

All Men are Created Equal

The five words —all men are created equal — profoundly link Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.

The students should have copies of each of the speeches in front of them, or projected on the screen in front of the room. Have them find and highlight the words, ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL, in each document.

Jefferson declares in 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Lincoln echos those words in 1863: “…our fathers brought forth a new nation…dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And in 1963, the same words resonate from Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed… that all men are created equal.”

These five simple words – ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL – span American history from its inception to the present. With that knowledge alone, students can come to appreciate the most fundamental, profound, and idealistic of American values: equal justice for all.