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Historical Era

Thinking Skill


Celebrating America’s Bicentennial in 1976

Launch Lesson

National Archives Education Team
Finding a Sequence
Historical Era:
Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
Primary Historical Thinking Skill:
Chronological Thinking
blooms taxonomy
Bloom's Taxonomy:

Use to create an Activity

Celebrating America’s Bicentennial in 1976


In this activity, students will learn how the Declaration of Independence has been made available so that Americans can still read this important document. They will follow the steps that were involved in printing copies of the Declaration of Independence from a 19th century copper engraving during the American Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. After analyzing images of the drafting, printing, and copies of the document, they will use context clues and information about the printing process to arrange the images into chronological order. They will also be tasked with determining why the document remains relevant today.

Use this activity at the end of a unit about the founding of the nation, to help students understand the importance of historial preservation, or while teaching about the bicentennial in 1970s America. For grades 6-8. Approximate time needed is 30 minutes.

Author’s Notes

Begin with a brief class discussion about the impact of the Declaration of Independence in our history. Americans chose it as the most influential document of our nation—even over the Constitution—when asked to vote.

The original document from 1776 is faded due to its travels, locations, storage, and years on public display before finding a permanent home at the National Archives, where it can be seen today. It was probably rolled up to travel with the Continental Congress during the Revolution. The First Congress under the new Constitution directed custody to the Department of State, and the document moved from New York, to Philadelphia, to Washington, DC, as the home for the Federal Government was decided upon. Housed in various government buildings in Washington over the years, it was removed from the capital for safekeeping during the War of 1812, traveled to Philadelphia for the Centennial in 1876, and was stored in Fort Knox during World War II. It hung on display at the Patent Office and State Department, and was unfortunately exposed to sunlight and smoke—both harmful to historical documents. The Library of Congress cared for the document after 1921; and it moved permanently to the National Archives, the “nation’s record keeper,” in 1952.

Ask students to speculate how we still know what the document says, even though it has become quite illegible. You may wish to display images of the original and a print for comparison.

In 1820, John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state and a future President, commissioned printer William J. Stone to make a full-size facsimile engraving of the Declaration of Independence on a copper plate. Prints from this copperplate are actually what are familiar to most Americans, providing a clear image of the text and signatures.

Direct students to begin the activity individually or in small groups. They will learn why the copperplate was made in the 19th century, and that it was used for printing during Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Ask students to click on and closely examine the images at the top of the screen, then drag them into order, using the “Details” and “Show Hints” buttons for help.

After sequencing and clicking “I’m Done,” students can answer:

1. Why is it important to preserve documents from American history?
Answers may reflect those of major cultural institutions like the National Archives, Library of Congress, or Smithsonian Institution.

2. Why do you think the government decided to celebrate the bicentennial this way?
Students might discuss the importance of being able to see a founding document over 200 years after it was written. It allows us to understand the document not simply as an abstract political tract, but as a declaration made by actual people, written in ink. Bicentennial celebrators ensured that future generations would be able to reflect in this way.

3. Looking carefully at the wording of the document, what one line do you think is most important today? Why?
Students will be able to examine a transcript of the Declaration of Independence.

You can read more about the Declaration of Independence on the Charters of Freedom online exhibit, and more about the Bicentennial and other prints in Prologue magazine, quarterly of the National Archives.

Documents in this activity: