What Does Liberty Look Like?

by Nathan MacAlister

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, Thomas Jefferson, 1776


The concept of “Liberty” is one that many hold dear. However, what liberty means to each individual may vary depending on his or her situation. During the American Revolutionary War period, many saw opportunity to speak out and test the waters of liberty. With the issuance of the Declaration of Independence and its promises of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” many became convinced that this “American Experiment” would change the world. In this lesson students will be asked to explore several perspectives of liberty during this period.


People had different understandings of the concept of “liberty” in the era of the American Revolution.

Objectives / Common Core


  • Determine the central idea of or information in a primary source. (RH2)
  • Determine the meaning of words or phrases. (RH4)
  • Evaluate authors’ differing points of view. (RH6)
  • Integrate information from diverse sources into a coherent understanding of an idea. (RH9)

Essential Questions

  • How was the idea of “liberty” understood in the era of the American Revolution?
  • Or What did “liberty” mean in the era of the American Revolution?


Opening Activity: What Is Liberty?

  1. Pose the essential question to the students.
  2. Hand out “The Look of Liberty?” activity sheet.
  3. Have the students draw a quick sketch of what liberty looks like to them in the “Pre” section.
  4. They do not need to spend a long time drawing this. Stick figures will suffice. They should be more concerned with the concept and image of liberty.
  5. Ask for volunteers and have the students share their ideas with the rest of the class.

Content Activity: Voices of Liberty!

  1. Divide the students up into groups of two or three. This may vary depending on the size of your class.
  2. Hand out one copy of each of the primary sources, “Voice of Liberty” 1, 2, and 3, to each group. You may also give each student within each group a copy of the documents.
  3. Hand out a copy of the “Voices of Liberty!” graphic organizer to each group.
    a. Have each group member put his or her name on the graphic organizer.
    b. Complete the graphic organizer as a group.
    c. Circulate around the room and discuss with students the differing aspects of their particular primary source documents and assist with questions they might have. In particular whose liberty are they speaking for?
    d. Make sure that the groups provide a sentence or two from each document to support their conclusions.
  4. When it appears that most of the groups have completed or are near completion of the graphic organizer, stop the class and go to step five.
  5. Have the student groups share their findings and discuss whose liberty and what evidence they discovered based on the primary source materials.
  6. After the class discussion has subsided have the students revisit “The Look of Liberty?” activity sheet and draw a quick sketch of what liberty looks like now in the “Post” section. Is it different or the same?
  7. Briefly discuss their conclusions and why they have or have not changed.

Assessment Activity: You are the Historian!

  1. Using the same groups as the content activity, have the students complete the “You are the Historian!” assessment sheet.
  2. When the groups are finished you may decide to have the groups hand in the assessment to grade or discuss their findings and ideas as a class before handing them in.

Note: The theme and content of this activity could be modified to accommodate a variety of lessons using the Sid Lapidus Collection online at the Princeton University Digital Library. Examples include: The Slave Trade, Taxation, The Stamp Act, and The Boston Massacre.

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