Lesson 1

Breaking Free: Our History


Lesson Overview:

This lesson summarizes American history through the Revolutionary War. In Part 1, the children will read two letters from settlers in the new land and write their own letter "back home." In Part 2, they'll review Revolutionary events and plan a colonial protest. In Part 3, they'll study the most important events of the war and read the introduction to the Declaration of Independence. They'll also decipher Revolutionary messages, make trading cards to keep and trade, and complete a crossword puzzle.


Content Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards


Learning Objectives:

The children will:

  • Identify the reasons some colonists chose to leave England.
  • Describe the advantages and challenges of living in the new land.
  • Recognize the escalating tensions between America and England.
  • Determine the purposes of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Examine the contributions made by little-known, ordinary individuals.
  • Tell facts about the Revolutionary War and what led to it.


Part 1: A Fresh Start

Reproducible: What Do You Know?

Before beginning the study, you may wish to have the children take this short quiz, which demonstrates knowledge of the topics covered in Level 2. It's not intended to measure reading ability, so feel free to read aloud the questions, clarify and in other ways help individual children. After the study, the quiz can serve as a review and a measure of learning.

The answers to the quiz can be found here.



Review some information about the early colonists, including the Pilgrims. The following summary may be helpful:

The first colonists came to America in 1607, about 15 years before the Pilgrims. They were English businessmen - goldsmiths, jewelers and barbers, and other professionals - not prepared to survive the wilderness of Virginia. Well over half died in the first nine months; many more would have, if not for the leadership of John Smith. He bargained with the Indians and forced everyone to work or face starvation.

The first Pilgrims, or "First Comers" as they called themselves, arrived from 1620-1623. They separated from the Church of England and settled in the Netherlands 10 years earlier. The settlers realized their survival depended on cooperating with each other, and wrote an agreement called the Mayflower Compact. Those who signed the document promised to obey laws made for the good of the colony.

Life was hard, and the death rates were high, but the colonists continued to arrive, not only from England, but also France, Spain, Sweden and Holland. They found the new land could grow crops, which were harvested and sold. From the first 38 Jamestown survivors, the population of America grew as people settled from Maine to Georgia, forming 13 colonies.


Reproducible: Letters from America

The only form of communication between the colonists and their families back in England was letters. In this age of e-mail and cell phones, it's hard to believe it once took months for a letter to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and it was sheer luck if it actually reached its destination.

We can learn a lot about the early days of our country by reading letters from those who lived during that period. Make copies of the Letters from America handout and ask the children to read the two letters, which have been rewritten to make them more readable and understandable. The first was written by William Hilton, who had sailed on the second Pilgrim ship, the Fortune. The second was from a young colonist to his father and mother in England.


Discussion Questions:

  • What were the advantages of living in America, according to Hilton?
  • How do we know he planned to stay in this country?
  • What hardships did the second writer face?
  • Considering the dates of the letters, why do you think his viewpoint is so different from Hilton's?
  • Imagine you're a colonist but live where you are now. Write a letter to a friend or relative back home, telling the advantages and disadvantages or living in your area.


MP3: The First Comers

The lyrics to the song can be copied, if desired. The students can sign or follow along. After listening, discuss the song using the discussion questions:

  • "They found their lived depended on working as one"  Why was it important for the First Comers to "work as one" to survive? (There was much work to be done in the colonies: food gathering and cooking, farming, house building, etc. By working together, the colonists could get more done in less time. They also needed to band together to defend themselves.)
  • "Settling in from Georgia to Maine"  Why did the colonists eventually settle in so many places in America? (Possible answer: Some had skills and trades that were better used in certain areas of the country. Some preferred a particular climate or area.)


Part 2: A Fight for Freedom

Reproducible: Breaking Away from England (1763-1774)

The timeline shows the events before and during the American Revolution. The children can take notes on the events during the discussion and write them on the lines provided below the timeline.



The American colonists had always been proud of their British citizenship and enjoyed a good relationship with King George III. Serious problems developed over time, however, and tensions mounted.

Great Britain kept troops in North America to protect its territories. The colonists were expected to help pay for their upkeep, which they thought was unfair. They resented the Proclamation of 1763, which kept them from settling in areas to the west.

The following  year, the Sugar and Currency Acts were imposed by the British lawmakers, or Parliament. They charged taxes on many items including sugar, coffee and certain fabrics, and prevented the colonists from printing more money.

The final straw was the Stamp Act, passed in 1765. Every piece of paper, from legal documents like wills and marriage licenses to newspapers, was taxed.

Even playing cards and dice were included! Such violent protests broke out that the British repealed the tax the next year, but the seeds for the American Revolution had already been planted.

The Quartering Act of 1766 forced some colonists to house and feed British soldiers. Paint, glass and tea were taxed in 1767. Several years later, the tax on tea remained, but the rest of the Townshend Acts were repealed. Scuffles broke out regularly now between the colonists and British troops. That same year, five civilians were killed by British troops in the so-called Boston Massacre. Although the soldiers weren't totally to blame for the deaths (the colonists had thrown rocks in snowballs, sticks and other objects at them), the public was still outraged.

The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was masterminded by the Sons of Liberty to protest the forced acceptance of cheap British tea made in China. Dressed as Mohawk Indians, the rebellious Boston residents boarded three ships anchored in the harbor and dumped 342 chests of tea, worth thousands of dollars.

The so-called Intolerable Acts were a British reaction to this "tea party." Boston's port was closed and Massachusetts fell under military rule as more British troops were sent to America. Colonists were forced to house soldiers in their homes and provide them with food and other items.


Activity: Colonial Protest

The following paraphrased quote from Samuel Adams, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, shows the mindset of most colonists at this time:

"If you love wealth more than liberty, and want to serve those in England instead of fighting for freedom, go home. We don't want your advice or your help. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you. May future Americans forget you were our countrymen."

Ask the students to imagine they are colonists.



  • How do you feel in general about the taxes, laws and other actions of Parliament, the British lawmakers?
  • Which particularly annoyed you? Why?

Invite the students to sketch a cartoon or poster, write a song or speech, or plan a rally to peacefully register their complaints to Parliament.


Part 3: A New Nation

Reproducible: The Fight for Freedom (1774-1782)

The timeline shows the events after the Intolerable Acts of 1774. The children can take notes on the events during the discussion and write them on the lines provided below the timeline. 



All the colonies except Georgia sent delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September 1774. The group sent a list of complaints to King George III and promised to meet again in the spring if nothing has been done. Before the second meeting, however, war broke out. On April 19, 1775, the American army saw their first victories against the British in the battles of Lexington and Concord.

George Washington was appointed commander in chief of the army when the Second Continental Congress met in May 1775. The new government took over the post office and issued currency, among other acts.

Early the next year, Thomas Paine's pamphlet "Common Sense" was published. It urged colonists to support separation from Great Britain to secure the freedoms and peace they so wanted. Not everyone was in favor of a complete break - one-fifth of Americans remained loyal to the King - but it seemed there was no going back.

A year later, the Declaration of Independence was approved by all 13 colonies, dissolving permanently the bond between America and Great Britain. Celebrating crowds in New York City toppled the lead statue of King George and melted it down to make American bullets.

The British hadn't given up the fight. They scored victory after victory in the fall of 1776. Peace was offered the Americans if they withdrew the Declaration of Independence, but they refused.

Christmas in America was bleak, but the following day Washington scored a victory in the Battle of Trenton, followed by another soon afterward in January 1777. The Continental Army won decisively in the fall of that year at Saratoga, capturing all men and weapons. That battle is considered the turning point of the war.

France now backed the American cause, and General Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown in 1781 caused most of British citizens to drop their support for the war. The problems they faced all along, including shipping troops and supplies across an ocean, took their toll, and the following year and agreement was signed to end the war. The United States had finally won its freedom!  


Reproducible: The Declaration of Independence

The handout contains the introduction to the historic document. The students will read the introduction, and then reword each paragraph on the lines provided. Some possible interpretations:

Paragraph 1: The 13 colonies had to break their ties with Great Britain (formerly England) in order to become a free and independent nation. They felt it was important to give the reasons they were taking this action.

Paragraph 2: The colonists recognized all humans have certain rights. If a government takes away these rights, people have the right to get rid of it and make a new one that makes them safer and happier.

Paragraph 3: There had to be very good reasons to dissolve the bonds that existed between the colonies and Great Britain. The colonists had been proud of their British citizenship and respected King George III, but they wanted to establish a government that would get its power from citizens.

Paragraph 4: The colonists then listed the king's actions so the world would know why they were separating. The colonists had tried to talk to the king about the problems they were having, but he wouldn't listen and made the situation worse.


Activity: Wanted Poster for King George III

What had King George III done? The next part of the Declaration of Independence listed the colonists' complaints against the king. Review the following with the children. They may enjoy making a "Wanted" poster for the king on a large piece of paper or poster board, along with a list of some of his crimes:

  • He refused to agree to laws that were "wholesome and necessary."
  • He refused to pass laws that were important to the colonists unless they would give up representation in Parliament.
  • He sent officers to bother the colonists, stay in their houses and eat their food.
  • He kept armies in the colonies, even in times of peace.
  • He cut off the colonies' trade with the world.
  • He kept the colonists from making their own laws and demanded they obey the laws made by England.
  • He waged war against them.
  • He unfairly taxed the colonists.
  • He discouraged English citizens from going to live in the colonies.
  • He denied colonists the right to a trial by jury.
  • He "plundered ... seas, ravaged ... coasts, burnt ... towns, and destroyed ... lives."
  • He pitted the colonists against each other and tried to stir up Indian attacks.
  • He brought colonists to England to be tried on false charges.
  • He shipped large armies to kill the colonists and rule them unjustly.

The Declaration of Independence concluded by announcing the United States was dissolving its bond with Great Britain and the colonists were no longer required to be loyal. They were "free and independent states" with the ability to wage war, make peace, and trade with other nations.


Reproducible: Deciphering Revolutionary Code

The Revolutionary War wasn't fought only on the battlefield. Civilians contributed to the cause by gathering intelligence and passing on the information. One technique used was writing in code. An ordinary book would be used as reference and three numbers would be written for each word: the first corresponded to the page of the book, the second to the line of the text and the third to the word in the line. The numbers were separated by periods.

Have the children decipher the handout's message, using the Declaration of Independence page as a reference. Since all words are found on the same page, the numbers will be a combination of the line number (there are 27 lines containing text, the title lines being 1 and 2) and the position of the word on the line. For example, the number 12.1 (12th line, 1st word) means "happiness." They might want to number the lines in the margin before beginning.

Click here to view the answers to the reproducible.

The handout provides additional space for the students to write their own message in code using a textbook. They should write the first letter of the book's title at the top of the note so the person deciphering the code knows which book to use. (For example, if they're using their reading textbook, they should ride 'R' at the top.)


Most people have some knowledge of the lives of famous Revolutionary personalities like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Many who lived during this time period, however, were very ordinary men and women who risked (and in many cases, lost) much to secure the liberty we now enjoy. The children will discover and share facts about these unsung heroes as they make trading cards o the less-famous signers of the Declaration of Independence.
A sample card of Robert Morris is provided on the handout. Using the template, have the children make trading cards on card stock or stiff paper. A portrait will add a lot to the card. Google Images is a good resource.
The trading cards will have the following information:
  • Name (a list of signers is provided below.)
  • State.
  • Age at signing (subtract the birth year from 1776.)
  • Unusual or interesting facts about the signer.

Suggested list of names:

​Josiah Bartlett ​William Wipple ​Matthew Thornton
​Robert Treat Paine ​Samuel Adams ​Elbridge Gerry
​Stephen Hopkins ​William Ellery ​Roger Sherman
​Samuel Huntington ​William Williams ​Oliver Wolcott
​Button Gwinnett ​Lyman Hall ​George Walton
​Samuel Chase ​William Paca ​Thomas Stone
​Charles Carroll ​George Wythe ​Richard Henry Lee
​Thomas Nelson, Jr. ​Francis Lightfoot Lee ​Carter Braxton
​William Floyd ​Philip Livingston ​Francis Lewis
​Lewis Morris ​Robert Morris ​Benjamin Rush
​John Morton ​George Clymer ​James Smith
​George Taylor ​James Wilson ​George Ross
​Caesar Rodney ​George Read ​Thomas M'Kean
​William Hooper ​Joseph Hewes ​John Penn
​Edward Rutledge ​Thomas Heyward, Jr. ​Thomas Lynch, Jr.
​Arthur Middleton ​Richard Stockton ​John Witherspoon
Francis Hopkins​ ​John Hart ​Abraham Clark

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Reproducible: American History Crossword

The answers to the crossword on the handout are provided here. ​​