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The Coming of the American Revolution: 1764 to 1776

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Lesson Plan for Concept #1: Rights and Responsibilities of British Subjects

Tim Castner, Nashoba Regional High School, Bolton, MA

CONCEPT 1: The rights and responsibilities of British subjects living in America were the focus of intensive debate and conflict in the years leading up to the Revolution.


Few aspects of the American Revolution created as much debate as the question of the rights and responsibilities of British subjects living in colonial North America. While the colonists believed that they shared all of the rights of British subjects anywhere within the empire, the British believed that the colonists had to be subordinate to the rule of the king and parliament, a body in which they had no actual representation. The words rights and responsibilities were subject to intense debate that ultimately could only be resolved through warfare. For the purpose of this concept a right will be defined as a mandatory claim that a subject has upon the government. Colonists saw these rights as emerging either from the hand of God, or through English Common Law and tradition tracing back to the Magna Carta. Responsibilities, often referred to in the documents as duties or obligations, are defined here as that which a subject owes to the government. Please note that the word duty will also refer to taxes in the documents. In either case it refers to something owed to those in authority. As both sides of imperial crisis interpreted the concepts of rights and responsibilities differently a myriad of debates emerged from these differences. The conflicts over these ideas emerged in a variety of forms including court cases, political proclamations and appeals, economic boycotts, continental congresses, and ultimately war. Finally it would take the success of American arms and the new Constitution to enshrine the American conception of rights and responsibilities for posterity.

Goals: students will understand that…

  • people on both sides of the Atlantic were keenly aware that colonists had rights and responsibilities living in the British Empire
  • there is a difference between a right and a responsibility
  • these concepts were subject to interpretation
  • the debates and conflicts took many forms


Ask students to get out a sheet of paper and brainstorm the three most important rights and responsibilities that they have as Americans. If necessary go over definitions of rights and responsibilities first. When they have finished brainstorming have students get together in groups of three and share their answers. Have the groups agree upon the three most important rights and responsibilities. Finally, have each group share the answers with the whole class. See if the class can agree upon the top three for each category.

Ask the students how easy it was to agree upon the top three for each category. How might this have been more difficult if it included people from other national backgrounds?

How difficult would it have been for the American colonists and the British government to have developed shared ideas of rights and responsibilities?

Final activating question: Based on your knowledge to this point what would the British government have identified as the top three rights and responsibilities of American colonists? What would the colonists themselves have said about their top three rights?

Divide the class up into groups of 2 or 3. Assign 1 to 2 documents from the list of documents for Concept 1 to each of the groups. As they read the documents have them complete a retrieval chart for each one. (See Retrieval Chart. Note: Soon the PDF version of the chart will be avialable as a link.) Depending on the documents chosen students will need about 15 to 20 minutes to complete the charts. The assistance of the teacher and/or aid will be important to assist students with difficult vocabulary and concepts. Please note that not all documents will fill up the chart. Some groups may have to list more rights and responsibilities than there is room for.

After the students have completed their retrieval charts have each group present the major ideas about rights and responsibilities that they have learned to the rest of the class. The teacher should record the important rights and responsibilities using a white board, overhead, or other technology.

Once all groups have shared their findings, ask the students what conclusions can be reached. Did certain rights and responsibilities come up repeatedly in the documents? What comparisons and contrasts can be made between the colonial list and the British list?

Finally, ask students how those differences might have led to conflicts during the revolutionary crisis. As you go forward with the other strands or to other coverage of the American Revolution, including the drafting of state and national constitutions and the Bill of Rights, refer back to these lists to show continuity and change in peoples’ beliefs about their rights and responsibilities.


PDF document of Retrieval Chart

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