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Classroom SimulationClassroom Simulation

The American Revolution and the Meaning of Equality

Contributing teacher: Monica R. Gisolfi
Time period: 1774–89



Overview
"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."
Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

In 1776, as Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, 500,000 Africans and their American-born descendants were enslaved in the British colonies, Jefferson himself owned more than one hundred slaves, and slave labor was quickly becoming the predominant form of labor in the southern colonies. As British colonists in America fought for their own freedom, they simultaneously denied freedom to twenty percent of the population. This contradiction between American slavery and American freedom persisted beyond the Revolutionary era.

The Revolutionary era gave birth to contradictory definitions of freedom and equality, and the American Revolution (1775–83) in particular placed the issue of slavery into public debate. This singular event helped define American notions of identity, nationality, citizenship, and entitlement that we continue to debate in the twenty-first century. Returning to our discussion of the decade leading up to the American Revolution, for many people in England and American subjects of Britain, freedom and equality entailed the right to own property, and slaves were defined as chattel property. For an outspoken minority, however, freedom and equality were universal rights that applied to all individuals, male and female, English and American, and this larger definition included slaves.

Our simulation serves three functions. First, students will probe the contradictory definitions of equality and freedom and explore the divergent interpretations of the famous words "all men are created equal." Second, students will trace how the language that emerged from the Revolutionary era thrust the issue of slavery onto the national agenda for the next century. Students will examine how this language set the terms for future debates on rights and entitlements, not only in the United States, but in other parts of the world as well. To illustrate this point, students will read and analyze David Walker's 1829 "Appeal . . . to the Coloured Citizens of the World," in which he drew on the language of the Declaration of Independence to legitimize his call for equality for people of African descent. Last, students will consider whether the American Revolution was a conservative or radical movement.


The Assignment
Assign one or, preferably, two students to each of the following historical figures. They will gather at the fictitious Meaning of Equality Convention (MEOC) in 1800 to debate the meaning and implications of this part of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. You may note that by 1800 some of the figures would have been dead. For the purposes of the simulation, this has no bearing.
  • Abigail Adams (1744–1818), wife of John Adams, the second president of the United States, and mother of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president.
  • Richard Allen (1760–1831), founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816) and a religious and educational leader in Philadelphia.
  • Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), author (with James Madison and John Jay) of the Federalist Papers
  • Lemuel Haynes, African American member of the Massachusetts Militia.
  • Patrick Henry (1736–1799), American revolutionary leader, orator, and Virginia slaveholder.
  • George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742–1840), a shoemaker and Revolutionary War veteran.
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), author of the Declaration of Independence, statesman, Virginia slaveholder, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States.
  • Toussaint L'Ouverture (c. 1749–1803), a slave and principal leader of the slave insurrection that established the independence of Santo Domingo (later Haiti) in the 1790s.
  • James Madison (1751–1836), architect of the U.S. Constitution, author (with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton) of the Federalist Papers, fourth president of the United States, and Virginia slaveholder.
  • Gabriel Prosser (c. 1775–1800), slave blacksmith who led an abortive slave revolt in Virginia modeled after the slave insurrections in Santo Domingo.
  • David Walker (1785–1830), free black abolitionist from North Carolina and author of "Appeal . . . to the Coloured Citizens of the World" (1829).
  • George Washington (1732–99), commander of the Continental Army, Virginia slaveholder, first president of the United States.
  • Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–84), African American poet.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1759–97), English author and pioneer of the women's-rights movement.
Based on the writings of assigned historical figures, biographical information, and notes taken at the Convention (see Web links), students must complete three writing assignments.

Writing Assignment #1
In a short essay (two to three hundred words), the students must explain why their historical figure has been asked to attend MEOC. What is the place of this individual in Revolutionary society, and why does the opinion of this individual matter?

Writing Assignment #2
Students must prepare for the convention by writing a position paper (three to five hundred words) in which they articulate their historical figure's interpretation of the phrase "all men are created equal." This may entail making an argument about what "all men are created equal" should mean. This essay must explain what influences their thinking about equality: their place in society, occupation, property holdings, and so on. In addition, they must draw on and integrate primary sources in the position paper to support their central argument and their definition of equality.

Writing Assignment #3
Ask your students to abandon their Convention roles and write a five hundred to one thousand word paper in which they cite statements and arguments made by others at the Convention to answer the following questions: Historians often argue about whether the American Revolution was radical; where do you stand on this issue? In what sense was the Revolution radical? In what sense was it a conservative movement? In what sense did it preserve the old order? Let your students know about this writing assignment before the Convention begins. Advise them to listen closely to the other participants and to take notes. For this writing assignment, they cannot simply recast their original presentation.


Guidelines

One Week Before the Convention
  • Assign roles and writing assignments to students.
  • Read and discuss the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's omitted paragraph on the slave trade, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and the documents in the "Slavery During the Revolutionary Period and Early Republic" DBQ (see Links to Common Readings, below).
  • In class discussion, begin to probe the meaning of "all men are created equal" and "we the people."
  • Address the following questions:
    • What did Jefferson mean by "all men are created equal?"
    • How might interpretations of this statement differ?
    • Why were there differing interpretations?
    • Did Jefferson refer to social, political, and economic equality?
    • What is the significance and meaning of the omitted paragraph?
    • Whom did "we the people" include?
    • How did the American Revolution and the Revolutionary rhetoric affect slaves?
    • How did the American Revolution and the Revolutionary rhetoric inadvertently bring the issue of slavery into public debate?
Three to Four Days Before the Convention
Collect and review writing assignments. Make suggestions for improvement. Encourage students to assume the role of their historical figure for the debate.

The Day of the Convention
  • Begin by having students/historical figures introduce themselves and explain why they have come to the convention. They may read from Writing Assignment #1, but you may also encourage them to embellish or speak in impassioned tones.
  • Next, have students/historical figures state their definitions and understanding of "all men are created equal." You may set a two-to-three-minute time limit. You may want to write these explanations on the board, to emphasize the range of opinion and areas of agreement among certain figures.
  • Allow for open discussion (in character). Encourage students to try and sway those of differing opinions. Require that each student pose a question and/or ask a point of clarification to another historical figure.
  • Questions for the teacher to pose during simulation:
    • What has influenced your thinking on equality?
    • As slaveholders, how is it that you can fight for liberty and own slaves? Do you see this as contradictory? (Questions specific to Jefferson, Washington, and Madison.)
    • Why have the words "all men are created equal" been so important to your work? In what sense do these words represent an unfulfilled or soon-to-be-fulfilled promise? (Questions specific to abolitionists, civil-rights leaders, women's-rights advocates, and Hewes.)
  • Break for caucus. At this point, groups of historical figures should find common ground; your notes on the board may help them form common-interest groups. Ask the historical figures to gather based on their opinions and craft a definition of "all men are created equal."
  • Reconvene and listen to the definitions.
Post-Simulation Discussion Questions
You may pose some of the following questions to conclude the simulation:
  • In what sense did owning slaves give slaveholders a deep understanding of freedom? Explain how slaveholders could cry for liberty as they denied liberty to their slaves.
  • In what sense did the American Revolution and the Revolutionary rhetoric lay the foundation for the abolitionist movement?
  • How did disenfranchised groups employ the language of the Revolution and the language of the Declaration of Independence to their advantage? How did the American Revolution and the Revolutionary rhetoric inadvertently bring the issue of slavery into public debate?
Post-Simulation Writing Exercise: Writing Assignment #3
See section on writing assignment.


References and Links
Note on historical figures: All figures in this simulation are real, not fictitious. For those historical figures without links to biographical information, students should consult a print or online encyclopedia. In certain cases in which the historical figure left no writings, the students must draw on related primary sources.

The Preamble to the Constitution
You can read the text of Jefferson's omitted paragraph on the slave trade, in The Struggle for Freedom.

Abigail Adams (1744–1818)
Wife of John Adams, the second president of the United States, and mother of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president.

Richard Allen (1760–1831)
Founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816) and a religious and educational leader in Philadelphia.

You can read a short biographical entry on Richard Allen, in The Struggle for Freedom.

You can read a short biography of Richard Allen at the PBS Web site. The PBS site also provides links to related entries, including images and document texts.

Douglass, The Reverend William. Annals of the First African Church in the United States of America Now Styled the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Philadelphia: King and Baird Printers, 1862.

Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804)
Author with James Madison and John Jay of The Federalist Papers

Hamilton, Alexander. Writings. New York: Library of America, 2001.

Frisch, Morton J., ed. Selected Writings and Speeches of Alexander Hamilton. Washington/London: American Enterprise Institute of Public Policy Research, 1985.

Lemuel Haynes
African American member of the Massachusetts Militia.

You can read a transcript of a freedom petition printed in the New-Hampshire Gazette; or, State Journal, and General Advertiser (July 15, 1780), in The Struggle for Freedom.

You can read a transcript of a freedom petition submitted by four slaves in Boston to the provincial (British) legislature (1773), in The Struggle for Freedom.

You can read a transcript of a freedom petition printed in Freeman's Journal: or, the North-American Intelligencer, Philadelphia (September 19, 1781), in The Struggle for Freedom.

Patrick Henry (1736–99)
American revolutionary leader, orator, and Virginia slaveholder.

Henry, Patrick. "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death." March 23, 1775.

You can read the text of "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" at the Yale Law School Avalon Project Web site.

Wirt, William Henry. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817.

You can read text and view illustrations from Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries' Documenting the American South Web site.

Wirt, William Henry. Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches. 1891. Reprint, New York: B. Franklin, 1969.

George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742–1840)
A shoemaker and Revolutionary War veteran.

Henretta, James A., Elliot Brownlee, David Brody, Susan Ware, and Marilynn Johnson. America's History. 3rd ed. Worth Publishers Inc., 1997.

You can read an excerpt of "George R. T. Hewes and the Meaning of the Revolution" at the Early America Review Web site. In this excerpt historian James Henretta describes Hewes's role in the Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
Author of the Declaration of Independence, statesman, Virginia slaveholder, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States.

You can read a short biographical entry on Jefferson from The Struggle for Freedom.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Philadelphia: Prichard and Hall, 1788.

You can read the text of Notes on the State of Virginia at the American Studies at the University of Virginia Web site.

Toussaint L'Ouverture (c. 1749–1803)
Principal leader of the slave insurrection that established the independence of Santo Domingo (later Haiti) in the 1790s.

You can read an account of the Haitian Revolution at the PBS Africans in America Web site, which includes links to related entries, images, and original texts.

Beard, The Reverend John Relly. The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti. Ingram, Cooke, 1853.

You can read text and view illustrations from The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries' Documenting the American South Web site.

Tyson, George F., Jr., ed. Toussaint L'Ouverture. Prentice-Hall, 1973.
(This book includes about forty pages of L'Ouverture's writings.)

James Madison (1751–1836)
Architect of the U.S. Constitution, author (with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton) of the Federalist Papers, fourth president of the United States, and Virginia slaveholder.

You can read excerpts from Madison's written works at the James Madison University James Madison Center's Web site.

Gabriel Prosser (c. 1775–1800)
Slave blacksmith who led an abortive slave revolt in Virginia modeled after Haitian slave uprisings.

You can read a short biographical entry on Gabriel Prosser, in The Struggle for Freedom.

"Confession of Solomon." September 5, 1800. In Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts from January 1, 1799, to December 31, 1807; preserved in the Capitol at Richmond, edited by H. W. Flournoy. 11 vols. Richmond: 1890.

You can read the text of "Confession of Solomon" at the PBS Africans in America Web site, which includes links to related entries, images, and original texts.

David Walker (1785–1830)
Free black abolitionist from North Carolina and author of "Appeal . . . to the Coloured Citizens of the World" (1829).

Wilentz, Sean, ed. David Walker's Appeal, In Four Articles: Together With A Preamble To The Coloured Citizens Of The World, But In Particular, And Very Expressly, To Those Of The United States Of America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

You can read an excerpt from David Walker's Appeal at the PBS Africans in America Web site, which includes links to related entries, images, and original texts.

George Washington (1732–99)
Commander of the Continental Army, Virginia slaveholder, first president of the United States.

Abbot, W.W., ed. The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 4, April - December 1799. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999. 477-492.

You can read excerpts from The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia's The Papers of George Washington Web site.


Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–84)
African American poet.

You can read a short biographical entry on Phillis Wheatley, in The Struggle for Freedom.

You can read the poem "On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Sewell", in The Struggle for Freedom.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1759–97)
English author and pioneer of the women's rights movement.

Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Boston: Peter Edes, 1792.

You can read the text of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman at the Web site Bartleby.com.


Concluding Remarks
A study of the meaning of the Constitution informs our understanding of American history in general and our comprehension of civil rights in particular.





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