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Small Edits, Big Consequences


The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the founding documents of this nation, did not address every issue faced by the fledgling union. In order to gain the support of all colonies or states, compromises needed to be made. Slavery, for example, is not mentioned in the Declaration, and was not abolished until 84 years after the Constitution was ratified. By not addressing certain problems, the founders were able to focus on the task at hand—creating a new nation—but left unresolved issues that would lead to war and strife in future years.

The first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson but then edited in committee and then by the Second Continental Congress as a whole. Jefferson's wording was debated, refined, added to, and ultimately agreed upon and signed by the delegates.

In this lesson, students read the original draft of the Declaration of Independence and compare it to the final version of the document. They will identify the changes between the two versions and hypothesize why those changes may have been made. They then forecast the effects these changes had on the future United States.


In this lesson, students:

  • Compare Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence to the final version.
  • Identify the words and phrases that were changed between the draft and the final version of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Hypothesize the reasons for and consequences of these edits.


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Image: Draft of the Declaration of Independence
  • Table: Compare the Drafts
  • Graphic Organizer: Draft of the Declaration of Independence


  1. Brainstorm with students why they might need to edit documents they have written.
  2. Discuss why the delegates to the Second Continental Congress might have needed to edit the Declaration of Independence. Record students' ideas on the board or a large sheet of paper.
  3. Project the Image: Draft of the Declaration of Independence for the class. Tell students that they will be reading a transcription of this draft—that is, a copy of the draft typed out for easy readability.
  4. Divide the class into groups of five.
  5. Hand out each group's section of the Table: Compare the Drafts to each student in the group.
  6. In their groups, have students highlight, underline, or circle substantive edits from the original draft (for instance, changing "&" to "and" would not be a substantive change, but an additional sentence would be).
  7. Students should, in discussion with their group, place the three or more most important changes from their section on the Graphic Organizer: Seeds of the Civil War Chart and identify the possible effect that that deletion had on the future United States.
  8. Have groups present their selections and analysis to the class.
  9. If desired, record each group's answers on the board, projector, or flip chart.
  10. In a whole class discussion point out that the issue of slavery was not solved in the Declaration of Independence, because the representatives from several colonies would not sign if slavery was included. Then 11 years later slavery was glossed over when the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, for the same reasons: southern states would not ratify if they could not keep the institution of slavery. Without the inclusion of the Three-Fifths Compromise, which allowed three-fifths of the enslaved population of a state to be counted for representation, the United States Constitution would never have been sent to the states for ratification. The end of slavery did not arrive until the Civil War and the subsequent Constitutional amendments.
  11. Ask students to imagine they are delegates to the Second Continental Congress and are reviewing Jefferson's draft. On a separate sheet of paper, have students write a short persuasive piece to the Congress arguing for or against a proposed change to the draft.

Lesson Extensions

Classes using The Idea of America™ program can identify the value tension applicable to each edit in the draft.

This lesson was written by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Master Teachers Chris Whitehead, Mesa, AZ, and Kim O'Neil, Liverpool, NY.