We Declare!: A New Teaching Activity Comparing American and French Revolutionary Documents

Today’s post comes from Leah Bouas, social studies teacher at Hebron High School in Carrollton, TX. She created a new teaching activity called We Declare! on DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with documents, as part of her internship at the National Archives.

French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen on top and American Declaration of Independence on bottom
French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen and Print of the Declaration of Independence

Mention the age of the Atlantic revolutions and history teachers everywhere will become giddy with excitement. However, mention the age of the Atlantic revolutions to students and they might begin to break out in a nervous sweat!

Whereas we, as teachers, tend to love the complexity and the chaos of that period, those are the very characteristics which overwhelm our students. We naturally want our students to love the content that we love, but they’re not having fun when they’re struggling just to piece together a basic timeline of the period.

I’ve found that one of the ways that I can help students make sense of the revolutions is to focus on the revolutionary documents themselves. These documents clearly link to the Enlightenment, a major causation factor of the Atlantic revolutions; and they establish the values held by the revolutionaries themselves.

As events unfold in the later stages of the revolutions, the revolutionary documents (and the ideals they represent) serve as a touchstone for evaluating the various phases of the revolutions. In some cases, like in France, comparing the events of the radical phase of the revolution to the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen reveals that the revolution drastically departed from its original intent. In other cases, such in as England’s colonies in North America, the Declaration of Independence compared to later phases of the revolution reveal a revolution that didn’t swing nearly as radically. In focusing on the documents, students are able to evaluate cause and effect, as well as compare revolutions to one another.

We Declare! helps the teacher walk students through this analytical process. The culminating task of the activity asks students to compare the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. Because both documents contain the word “declare,” students may initially assume that they were similar in their purpose and function. Over the course of the activity, however, students should realize that while the two documents stemmed from similar ideas, giving the teacher an opportunity to discuss Enlightenment philosophy, the Declaration of Independence rationalized the colonies’ shift toward revolution, while the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen established the basic rights to which each citizen of France was entitled.

Through this approach to studying revolutions, students have the opportunity to discover the revolutions by engaging analytically with primary sources that will give them a glimpse into the thought processes of revolutionary leaders. Students will practice using historical reasoning skills to evaluate historical context and purpose in the documents. By focusing on a deep understanding of excerpts from the two documents, students will establish a base layer of learning that will help them to organize further information as they continue their study of the Atlantic revolutions.

We Declare! was designed with World History teachers in mind, but it can also be used in the context of a U.S. History or Civics course.

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