The Language of the American Revolution

Lesson Plan: How can language impact attitudes?

Dunmore’s Proclamation, Library of Congress

Download the lesson: The Language of the American Revolution lesson plan




Virginia Standards of Learning:

ENG 6.1, 6.2, 6.3, 6.4, ENG 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, 7.4, ENG 8.1, 8.2, 8.3, 8.4, VS.4, VS.5, US1.5, US1.6

Using Information Sources; Determining Cause and Effect; Making Connections; Demonstrating Comprehension; Questioning and Critical Thinking

This lesson also meets national standards of learning for language arts and social studies


This lesson will help students:

Define vocabulary terms used to frame the American Revolution

Understand the difference between connotation and denotation

Analyze the impact of terminology as colonists chose sides in the American Revolution

Essential questions:

What do the terms used during the American Revolution actually mean?

Why do certain terms carry negative connotations?

How can language impact attitudes?


Handout Key Terms in the Debate for American Independence

Handout Connotations

Teacher Background: Dunmore’s Proclamation


1. As a class, briefly discuss the different factors that colonists had to consider between 1763 and 1783.
Ask students to consider the following to spark the conversation:

Were merchants more likely to support independence, or stay loyal to the king?

How did colonists react to the taxes levied by the King and Parliament?

What was the Proclamation Line of 1763, and how did it impact the colonists?

2. Play the clip from Slave Spy. As a class, respond to the following:

What words and terms seem to have the most meaning?

Are there words that seem to mean different things depending on who says them?

3. Working in pairs, have students complete the handout, Key Terms in the Debate for American
Independence. In order to familiarize themselves with some of the vocabulary surrounding this historical event, students should write a definition, the part of speech, and a sentence correctly using the word. Students should also note if they have ever seen the word before, and where.

4. Denotation is the exact meaning of a word. Connotation, on the other hand, is more than just the
dictionary definition. Connotation is the suggested, or implied, meaning of a word. For example, consider the words “cute” and “gorgeous”. The denotations of these words are similar, but the connotations are different. As a class, ask students to list the connotations of the words “cute” and “gorgeous”.

5. List the words “illegal” and “unauthorized” on the board. Have students individually write connotations for these words, then compare their responses with a partner. As a class discuss:

Were your responses similar or different? Was anyone surprised?

Has anyone ever done anything “unauthorized”? Were their consequences?

Is doing something that is unauthorized the same as doing something that is illegal?
Why or why not?

6. List the words “rebel”, “patriot”, and “traitor” on the board. Have students individually write
connotations for these words, then compare their responses with a partner. As a class discuss:

Were your responses similar or different? Was anyone surprised?

7. Project the following quotes from Dunmore’s Proclamation for the class:

“I do require ever Person capable of bearing Arms, to [resort] to His MAJESTY’S STANDARD, or
be looked upon as Traitors to his MAJESTY’S Crown and Government”

“And I do hereby farther declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels)
free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty’s troops, as soon as may be”

After reading the quotes together, ask students to identify the traitors; the rebels; the patriots.

8. Now provide the following historical context for Dunmore’s Proclamation:

On November 7, 1775, Dunmore proclaimed martial law and offered freedom to slaves who
escaped from their patriot masters and agreed to fight for the king.

Dunmore did not free his own slaves.

His offer of freedom to slaves to fight against white Virginians and his recruitment of a regiment
of black soldiers alienated most of the remaining influential planters and political leaders who
until then had stayed loyal to the Crown.

9. Ask students once again to identify the traitors; the rebels; the patriots. Did responses change? Why?

10. Ask students to consider the purpose and audience of Dunmore’s Proclamation.

Why was he writing this?

Who was he writing it for?

How did these factors influence his language choices?


Have students create a social media post from the point of view of someone during the Revolutionary period, reacting to Dunmore’s Proclamation. Then, have students create a response post from a different point of view.

Taking Informed Action: You Say You Want a Revolution

In this task, students draw on their conceptual understanding of the term “revolution” to think about the nature of contemporary revolutions. Clearly, there are many modern-day examples of political revolutions they could investigate, but they should also consider other types of revolutions, including economic, social, or even technological revolutions. In this way, students will be able to transfer their knowledge around the American Revolution to other contexts, evaluating the ways in which revolutions can be similar or different and ultimately successful or not.

To understand the situation, students could identify a current unfinished revolution, focusing on a group of people who are currently trying to revolutionize some element or aspect of contemporary society. They might select a political revolution, but students might also choose a social, economic, or technological revolution.

Students should read about the effort and assess the extent to which this group has been successful and the challenges they currently face, with a particular attention to the language that is used to frame the debate. Additionally, students should take a stand on the revolution, taking into account their personal reactions and support of the revolutionary effort. In doing so, they may also consider the overuse of the term “revolution” and the extent to which the effort is, in fact, revolutionary.

Lastly, students could act by writing an editorial for the school or local newspaper. Within the editorial, students might discuss their positions on the efforts of those engaged in revolution and the extent to which those efforts are currently successful.