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Common Core Standards: ELA

Grades 11-12

Reading RI.11-12.9

Standard 9: Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

Breakin’ it Down:

This standard may seem like it’s in the realm of the history department. But the problem is that, in history classes, students often focus on the historical context and the historical consequences of important documents. They rarely have the opportunity to dig into the persuasive techniques and themes of the texts. Sometimes, students leave a history class without ever having seen the actual words of the documents that shaped history.

This standard exists because of the belief that students should be familiar with the major pieces of writing that shaped and continue to shape their country’s history and culture. Just like there are works of literary fiction that students are expected to know, there are also famous non-fiction works that students should have in their repertoire. When students leave your classroom, they should be expert readers and informed citizens.

To meet this standard, make sure that when you are selecting non-fiction texts for your curriculum, you include texts that have influenced the history of the U.S. The actual titles listed in the standard are a great place to start but should in no way be a restrictive list.

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Example 1

Teacher Feature: Ideas for the classroom

This standard pulls together the skills of two other standards in this set: Standard 2 and Standard 6. The main skills to cover in this standard are the art of comparison and the analysis of rhetorical persuasiveness. Choose speeches, foundational political pieces, essays, and critiques that address similar topics or themes. Give students opportunities to compare and contrast the nuances of themes across multiple works (see Standard 2 for ideas). It’s also interesting to analyze the ways in which great documents argue their points: think fear mongering versus repetition (see Standard 6).

Again, these ideas are only meant as suggestions to fuel your creative fire!

Drill 1

Read this excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, and then answer the questions that follow:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

1. [Easy] According to this document (which was drafted by Thomas Jefferson), the role of government is:
a. to ensure that the opinions of mankind are taken into account. (Nope. While this answer choice is not blatantly wrong, it is too vague to be the best choice. Taken into account by the government for what purpose? In the document, Jefferson uses the phrase “the opinions of mankind” to specify not the purpose of government but the purpose of the document itself. He says it is being written to explain to people why the colonies are seceding from the British monarchy.)
b. to safeguard people’s God-given rights to liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. (Yes! Good job!)
c. to ensure the separation between Church and State. (Nowhere is this mentioned in the document, so it is incorrect.)
d. to end monarchy. (Nope. While the King of Britain is accused of “repeated injuries and usurpations” and “absolute tyranny,” and it is clear that the colonies are seeking independence from that particular monarch, this document is not making a case against monarchy in general and does not say that the role of government is to end monarchy.) 

2. [Hard] Which of the following assumptions that Jefferson makes is an appeal to the reader’s or listener’s emotions?
a. “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.” (Nope. Rather than appealing to the emotions, this appeals to logic or reason – or logos.)
b. When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. (This sentence shows us the speaker(s) is/ are an honorable bunch, so it is an appeal to ethos – in other words, it shows us the character/ credentials of the speaker in a positive light.)
c. “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” (Yes! This sentence makes us feel bad for the colonies, which have been injured, usurped, and tyrannized by the King. So it is an appeal to the reader’s or listener’s emotions – in other words, an appeal to pathos.)
d. “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” (This appeals to logic or reason – or logos.)

Drill 2

Read the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and then answer the questions that follow:

3. [Easy] One of the most obvious differences between these two documents is:
a. The Bill of Rights is a much more recent document that the Declaration of Independence, as is evident from the language of these documents. (Nope. In fact, they were created at around the same time. The Bill of Rights is dated at 1791, and the Declaration of Independence was made on 1776.)
b. While the Declaration of Independence specifically discusses the transgressions of the British monarchy, the Bill of Rights discusses the powers of a more general “Government.” (Yes! Good work.)
c. One was written by a British person, and one by an American. (They are both considered to be seminal documents of U.S. history, so they are both certainly American. The Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, and the Bill of Rights were introduced by James Madison.)
d. There are no real differences between the two. They say pretty much the same things. (Nope. While they do share ideas, there are in fact several differences between these two documents.)

4. [Easy] One of the most important similarities in the content of these two documents is:
a. They both aim to limit the powers of the government from becoming tyrannical and infringing on the rights of citizens. (Correct! Nice work! While the Declaration of Independence addresses the tyrannical behavior of the monarch of Britain toward the American colonies, the Bill of Rights seeks to limit the power of Congress/ government from impeding on the rights of citizens.)
b. They were both written by the same person. (These two documents had different authors: The Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, and the Bill of Rights were introduced by James Madison. So this answer is incorrect.)
c. They both present their matter in point form. (This is true, but this is a superficial similarity rather than a similarity of content, which is what the questions asks for.)
d. They are both important documents in U.S. history. (Again, while this statement by itself is true, it is not specifically answering the question, which asks for a similarity of content in these two documents and not a similarity in significance.)

5. [Medium] From reading these two documents, one can deduce that the attitude of our founding fathers towards the establishment of courts of law was:
a. that the power of the courts must never supersede the power of the military. (This is incorrect. In fact, both documents express concern that the military might overpower systems of justice and the legislature.)
b. that all judges must take their orders directly from the King, and must do his bidding at all times. (Nope. The Declaration of Independence lists this as one of the complaints the colonies have against the King of Britain: “He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”)
c. that they would help raise a lot of money for the nation by charging high amounts as bail and as fines. (Nope. The Bill of Rights explicitly states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed….”)
d. that judges and juries must be impartial in order to dispense justice in a fair manner. (Right! The Declaration of Independence expresses concern that judges do the bidding of the King and are therefore unfair, and that the King often denies the people of the colonies trial by a jury. The Bill of Rights states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed,” and so forth.)