Lesson Title: In Defense of Liberty: The Magna Carta in the American Revolution, Grade Band: 9 – 12


Through careful examination of an image of a 1775 Massachusetts thirty-shilling note from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History collections, students will discover the reason Paul Revere featured the Magna Carta (1215) on the currency he designed, and the symbolic importance the document had for American colonists fighting for their "just rights and liberties" as Englishmen.

Guiding Questions:

  • Why did colonists believe that they were entitled to certain absolute rights?
  • How did Paul Revere portray that sentiment in his design for the 1775 Massachusetts shilling note?

Learning Objectives:

After completing this lesson, students will be able to demonstrate understanding of the role the Magna Carta played in the colonists' defense of their rights as Englishmen and, ultimately, justification for the American Revolution. Students will:

  • Identify the 1775 Massachusetts "sword-in-hand" thirty-shilling note as a form of currency and a historical object created in the 18th century, through the use of guided examination.
  • List the seven key visual elements of the Massachusetts sword-in-hand shilling note and explain the significance of each.
  • Formulate an initial hypothesis regarding the meaning of the visual elements on the object.
  • Place the Massachusetts "sword-in-hand" shilling in historical context using a chronology listing major events between 1763, the end of the French and Indian War, and December 1775.
  • Analyze one of three documents created by the Continental Congress: the Articles of Association (1774), Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775), and Response to King George III's Proclamation of Rebellion (1775).
  • Refine their original hypothesis regarding the visual elements used on the object.

Preparing to Teach this Lesson

Historical Context:

Since 1607, the colonies in North America had flourished. Britain had been content to leave the day-to-day administration of local government to its royal governors and to the colonies' own English-style representative legislatures, common-law jury courts, and local militias.

Following its victory in the French and Indian War in 1763, Britain looked anew at its imperial responsibilities. Parliament decided to secure its expanded American empire with British troops. English commoners paid taxes to support Britain's powerful army and navy and finance its war debt; it seemed fair that colonists should pay too.

The British government began to enact and execute taxes and other binding laws without deference to colonial governments or popular consent; see, for example, the Sugar Act (1764), Stamp Act (1765), Declaratory Act (1766), and Townshend Acts (1767). Colonists objected, citing their rights as Englishmen.

These rights—first enumerated in 1215 in the Magna Carta, then expanded and codified in English common law—were principally the rights of personal security, personal liberty, and private property. Colonists believed they were entitled to these rights. As Samuel Adams, the revolutionary leader from Massachusetts wrote in 1772:

All persons born in the British American Colonies are, by the laws of God and nature and by the common law of England, exclusive of all charters from the Crown, well entitled, and by acts of the British Parliament are declared to be entitled, to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable rights, liberties, and privileges of subjects born in Great Britain or within the realm.

Although differing economic interests, regional and ethnic identities, and religious beliefs divided the colonists, they shared a common understanding of these rights. They began to communicate and coordinate protests. They issued statements of their rights, appealed to the king and people of Britain, and petitioned Parliament in The Rights of the Colonists (1772) and the Declaration of Rights and Grievances (1774). They boycotted British goods through the Articles of Association (1774) and harassed royal officials.

Then on April 19, 1775, British troops in Boston marched in darkness toward nearby Concord to seize the local militia's cache of arms and gunpowder. Patriots from Boston alerted the countryside. At dawn, the British confronted a militia unit gathered on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts. The militia members were neighbors, fathers and sons, cousins; at least one was a slave; some were old men, some were teens. They had come only to defend their "just rights and liberties" as English subjects.

During the standoff, a shot was fired. In a brief melee, eight colonists were killed and ten wounded. Militiamen rushed to arms, and fierce skirmishes continued throughout the day. News of the fighting rallied "Friends of American Liberty" in all the colonies.

Just weeks after the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and Concord, delegates from every colony gathered in Philadelphia and convened the Second Continental Congress. In May, they resolved to unite the troops of the several colonies into a single Continental army under the "pay and service" of the Congress. In June, the Congress unanimously elected George Washington general and commander in chief. In July, they set forth "the causes and necessity of their taking up arms." In August, King George III declared the colonies to be in a state of "open and avowed rebellion" and directed "all our Officers, civil and military" to "suppress such rebellion and to bring the traitors to justice." On December 6 the Congress responded to the king's declaration:

We, therefore, in the name of the people of these United Colonies, and by authority, according to the purest maxims of representation, derived from them, declare, that whatever punishment shall be inflicted upon any persons in the power of our enemies for favouring, aiding, or abetting the cause of American liberty, shall be retaliated in the same kind, and the same degree upon those in our power, who have favoured, aided, or abetted, or shall favour, aid, or abet the system of ministerial oppression.

Excerpt from the Continental Congress' Response to King George III's Proclamation of Rebellion – December 6, 1775

Getting Ready:

Instructional Plan:

Remind students to comment on all seven of the elements identified on the DRS. 

  • the denomination of the note: thirty shillings
  • a uniformed colonial soldier
  • a sword
  • the document the soldier is holding: the Magna Carta
  • the words "Issued in defense of American Liberty"
  • a motto in Latin: "Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem"("By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty")
  • the date
  1. Project the image of the Massachusetts shilling note or hand out printed copies of the image to the class.
  2. Distribute a Data Retrieval Sheet (DRS) to each student.
  3. Introduce the activity to the students:
    By analyzing this image of a 1775 Massachusetts thirty-shilling note from the collections of the National Museum of American History, we are going to explore the meaning of the visual elements Paul Revere incorporated into its design and the surprising role this object, and others like it, played in daily life during the time period.
  4. Make sure that students understand the concept of "the rights of Englishmen" and the historic role the Magna Carta played in the lives of American colonists.
  5. Ask students to look closely at the object and the information that is provided on the Data Retrieval Sheet.
  6. Ask students to record what they think each visual element means in the section of the DRS labeled Looking at the Object.
  7. Through a brief discussion, ask the class to develop an initial hypothesis regarding the meaning of the visual elements. Write the hypothesis on the board.
  8. Ask students what other types of information would help them determine the significance of the imagery on the shilling, and help them refine their hypothesis. Remind students of the value of using many different sources of information when doing research about the past and explain/review the concept of primary and secondary sources to students.

    Primary Source: An actual record that has survived from the past, such as government documents, diaries, letters, photographs, or objects. 

    Secondary Source: An account of the past created by people (historians, for example) who did not actually experience the event and wrote about it sometime after it happened.
  9. Ask students if the shilling note is a primary or secondary source of information.
  10. Hand out the chronology and read it aloud. Ask students if the chronology is a primary or secondary source.
  11. Instruct students to use the chronology to place the object in time, and fill out the Source 2section of the DRS.
  12. Offer students the opportunity to revise their hypothesis based on the information in the chronology and make any necessary revisions on the board.
  13. Ask students to name other forms of information that would help them gain a better understanding of the significance of the visual elements on the shilling note.
  14. Transition to small-group work by dividing the class into three groups.
  15. Hand out one primary source document and one Document Analysis Sheet to each group.
    • Articles of Association (1774),
    • Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775), or
    • Response to King George III's Proclamation of Rebellion (1775)
  16. Ask groups to read the assigned document, complete the Document Analysis Sheet, and fill out the Source 3 section of the DRS. Each group should choose a representative to explain how the document expands their understanding of the time period and helps them further refine their hypothesis.
  17. Ask all three groups to present their findings to the class.
  18. Offer students the opportunity to revise their hypothesis based on the information in the documents and make any necessary revisions on the board.


  1. Using the "In Defense of Liberty" PowerPoint slide, click on each of the seven elements to compare students' findings to scholarly interpretation.
  2. Ask students what purpose, other than paying for things, this shilling would have served.
  3. Read students this quote by Richard Doty, the curator of numismatics at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, who is an expert on colonial paper currency:
    Americans were among the first people to put messages on paper money. Such words and pictures had far more impact in the 18th century than they do in the message-rich 21st. The merchant in Charleston, South Carolina, or the farmer outside Litchfield, Connecticut, likely had no more than three or four sources of verbal or pictorial imagery—a Bible, a newspaper, a handbill, and a piece of currency. Why not add visual elements to the notes to tell a story about who we are, why we were fighting, what we expect to achieve?

Extending the Lesson:

Discuss the Richard Doty quote and ask students to describe how they might communicate a message demanding their rights in the 21st century. What visual elements would they use?

Technology Option: Instruct students (individually or in small groups) to create a political message using visual elements and media appropriate to a 21st-century audience.

Web links:

Magna Carta and Its American Legacy 
An article from the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration

Magna Carta Translation 
A translation of the Magna Carta as confirmed by Edward I with his seal in 1297

Magna Carta (1215) 
Yale Law School's presentation of the Magna Carta with an interactive glossary.

Colonial Charters 
A portal to Yale Law School's collection of digital documents relating to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government. 

Promises to Pay, Promises Unkept: How We Won a War and Lost Our Shirts 
An article discussing the origins and role of early American currency by Richard G. Doty, curator in the Numismatics Division of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 

National Constitution Center 
Explore America's founding documents. 


National Standards for History (NCHS):

Era 3 Revolution and the New Nation (1754–1820s):

Standard 1A 
The student understands the causes of the American Revolution.

Historical thinking standards:

Standard 2. Historical Comprehension 
A. Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage. 
G. Draw upon visual, literary, and musical sources.