Using the 4th to Teach Interpretation

Did you know that the legal separation of the 13 Colonies from Great Britain occurred on July 2nd? The Declaration of Independence was formally approved by Congress two days later, on July 4th, 1776. Indeed, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail that July 2nd, “will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.”

The fourth of July is an important American holiday and this post can be used for resources educators can consider using in the classroom at any time of the year. This should also set the stage teach critical thinking skills and placing the learning into your students’ hands with brief group discussions.

Using the Frederick Douglass speech as your main primary source: What to a slave is the 4th of July? As the overarching question to guide student thinking, use this question:

How does Douglas’s perspective counteract the themes of 4th of July and the Declaration of Independence?”

Below are resources to learn more about this momentous speech, along with ways to teach it to students:

What to the Slave is the 4th of July (My personal creation): 

I created five separate excerpts of Douglass’s speech. For my lesson, I would split students into five separate groups to analyze and briefly discuss each question listed. It can also be a springboard for you to differentiate your instruction for the varying needs in your classroom.

Unabridged Speech (Teaching American History):

This is important to read as the teacher, prior to instruction. Context is key!

Abridged Speech (Gilder-Lehrman Library):

Using the Gilder-Lehrman Library resources is a great start for your planning. Day Five is the most important, in my opinion, where they pose these three questions:

  1. Where does Frederick Douglass place the blame for slavery in America, and how does he make that argument?
  2. Why does Frederick Douglass compare the United States to a river; and how may America avoid becoming “the sad tale of departed glory”?
  3. Why does Frederick Douglass refer to the audience as “you” or “your”? What arguments does Douglass make that reinforce this point of view?

Causes of the Civil War/Abolition Movement (The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center):

With the HBSC resources, you will find detailed and useful lesson plans on teaching for multiple points of view, and analyzing Douglass language and tone.

Techbook Resource Options:

Finally, there are excellent Techbook lesson sequences that facilitate the analysis of enslaved and free blacks in antebellum America within the “Slave Life in America” section (1.2). Use the following Techbook Essential Question to guide student learning “In antebellum America, what did it mean to be a slave? A free African American?”

I would also recommend the “Declaration of Independence Explored” section of Techbook (3.3) as a way to bring in essential and critical viewpoints into the study of the Declaration of Independence. Use this essential question to guide student learning: “How does the Declaration of Independence reflect the colonists’ ideas about government?” In comparing with the aforementioned Douglass speech: “How do the ideas of the Declaration of Independence compare with Frederick Douglass’s argument regarding the hypocrisy of 4th of July celebrations?”

About the Author: Casey Siddons is a Consulting Teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools, and a blogger for Discovery Education. Casey has worked for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland since 2008 where he taught 6th grade world studies for eight years; five years as a department chair, and joined the Consulting Teacher team in MCPS in 2016. Casey’s current role as Consulting Teacher is to help build the capacity of new and experienced educators. Casey earned a B.S. in Citizenship Education with a concentration in Secondary Education from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and is currently earning his M.S. in Educational Leadership from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland.


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