Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Rights in Early America

In this activity, students are assigned roles as different members of early American society and move to different areas of the classroom according to whether they could always/sometimes/never exercise different rights in the 1770s and 1780s. This activity helps students understand different rights and privileges and helps set up the document-based activity "Claiming We the People."


  • Students will be able to describe the rights afforded to different members of society in early America.


NOTE:Before the activity begins, the teacher will need to create "identity cards" for all of the students in the class. On index cards or slips of paper, write one of the following identities. Make sure to have a variety of identities in the class, with at least one of each type of person in the mix:

  • White man with property

  • White man without property

  • Enslaved woman

  • Free African-American man

  • White woman

Step 1: Pass out identity cards to each student in the class. Then tell students that in a moment, they will be asked to decide whether they could exercise various rights in the 1770s and 1780s. (The teacher may want to "paint the scene" a little by asking students to share their prior knowledge about the period.) 

Step 2: Designate different areas of the room with ALWAYS, SOMETIMES or NEVER. The teacher may want to create signs for each area of the room so students don't forget. Before starting the activity, point to each area of the room and repeat whether it is ALWAYS, SOMETIMES or NEVER. Tell students that you are going to read a right, and then they have to decide whether they would have ALWAYS had that right, they would have SOMETIMES had that right, or they would have NEVER had that right in Revolutionary America. 

It may be helpful to display these directions for students to refer to during the activity:

  • Imagine you are the identity on the card, living in America in the late 1770s.

  • Listen to each statement. For each, decide whether you would have had that right ALWAYS, SOMETIMES, or NEVER.

  • Move to the correct spot in the room.  

Step 3: Go through the rights in the following order: VOTE, SERVE ON JURY, OWN PROPERTY. After reading each right, allow students to move around the room. When students are in place, call out each group ("Free white men? Enslaved women?") to see where students have placed themselves. Ask the group whether they think people have chosen correctly. Then, using the "Snapshot of Rights in Early America" chart, tell students whether they have chosen correctly or not. Have students move to the correct part of the room.

NOTE: Students who don't move a lot--white men with property and enslaved women--might get bored or lose focus. Check in with them as students are moving about how they feel about their rights. 

Step 4: After going through all of the rights, debrief with students:

  • Who had the most rights?

  • Who had the fewest rights?

  • Whose rights were in flux?

Note with students that free black men and white women's rights were most in flux, because society wasn't quite sure what to do with them yet. Societal leaders weren't sure whether race determined rights, or status as free.  They weren't sure whether gender determined rights, or status as free. 

Step 5: (Optional) Display or pass out the "Snapshot of Rights in Revolutionary America" with students. Discuss key points.  

Historical Context

The American Revolution raised more questions about equality and human rights than it answered. Though individual states loosened limits on who could hold office and vote, Americans had differing opinions about how democratic their republic should be, about how broadly or directly ordinary people should participate in political affairs. These divisions persisted as new states moved to establish their own permanent governments and constitutions. Though the ideas of the Revolution inspired many states to get rid of property requirements for voting, far fewer considered abolishing slavery or adopting women's suffrage.  

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Rights in Early America,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 18, 2021,

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