Lesson Plans

Lesson Plan: On the Origin of Rights

On the Origin of Rights







As a society, we often talk about “rights.” We talk about the rights that belong to us. We even talk of defending our rights. But rarely do we have meaningful conversations about the nature of those rights. This lesson will examine the origin and nature of rights. What are they? How did we get them? How might we keep them? We will examine the intellectual and historical threads that gave us the rights we sometimes take for granted today.









Approximately three 85 minute class periods.



RESOURCES (title only – attach complete files separately)


  1. Enlightenment Thinkers PowerPoint
  2. Primary source documents
  3. Graphic organizer for discussion





In our class to this point, we’ve seen heads of states, monarchs, certain that their power was granted them by God. We’ve encountered a world certain it was at the center of not only the solar system, but the universe. We’ve seen a Church dominate a continent. But we’ve also seen those structures and beliefs crack and begin to change. Revolution after revolution has shaken Europe’s identity. Out of this change comes a period of radical thought, radical questioning. Thinkers come and question the very foundation of government. Their ideas send chills through the monarchies of Europe and, eventually, contribute to the creation of something new under the sun: a nation founded upon an idea.





Students will:


  • Demonstrate an understanding of “rights” by creating their own definition
  • Research an Enlightenment thinker and examine primary sources
  • Create a presentation from the point of view of various Enlightenment thinkers
  • Debate the merits of various philosophical positions on rights, human nature and government






B.12.1 Explain different points of view on the same historical event, using data gathered from various sources, such as letters, journals, diaries, newspapers, government documents, and speeches


B.8.5 Use historical evidence to determine and support a position about important political values, such as freedom, democracy, equality, or justice, and express the position coherently


B.8.6 Analyze important political values such as freedom, democracy, equality, and justice embodied in documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights


C.12.1 Identify the sources, evaluate the justification, and analyze the implications of certain rights and responsibilities of citizens






  1. Do Now: “State of Nature” Activity


Teacher writes the following prompt on the board:


Imagine there is no government. Imagine there is no civilization. There are no cities, cars, guns, no technology but the most primitive tools. Imagine the world has gone back before it all to a “state of nature.” What does that world look like? Why does it look like that?


Tell students they will be turning in their short essays at the end of class. Students write for 10 minutes or so and then share out. This discussion should lead to questions about human nature and the purpose of government.


  1. Creating a definition of “rights”


As a class, we will try to come up with a working definition of “rights.” What are they? The teacher will manage the discussion and write the definition on the board (or type it on the SmartBoard). The activity will go until the class agrees that the definition works. The teacher can ask prodding questions as necessary.


  1. Enlightenment Thinkers PowerPoint


Teacher presents a PowerPoint on relevant Enlightenment thinkers: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It touches on their views of the State of Nature, the purpose of government, their preferred form of government, the role of rights and other contributions they made. This should give students a foundation of understanding.


  1. Document Evaluation and Online Research


Students will be broken up into four groups – one for each of the Enlightenment thinkers. Their task will be to put together a presentation for a class discussion. They will read and research their philosopher and then explain his positions on human nature, rights and the purpose of government. They will also explain their philosopher’s preferred form of government. Groups will be provided original documents from their philosopher (some may need to be excerpted or modified for understanding). They will also be provided time with laptops or other computers so they can research. All research completed online must be documented.


To accomplish their task, groups will split up the work. There should be a group leader (organizes the overall presentation and fields questions from other groups), a government expert, a human nature expert and an expert on rights. It’s for these experts to discern the thinker’s positions on these topics and be ready to present them to the class. If there are more people for each group, they can help with tasks as needed.


  1. Discussion – Debating Rights and the Role of Government


After the groups have had time to put together a short presentation (this could be a full class period), they will participate in a class discussion. Their job is to convince an emerging nation, the United States of America (can be played by the teacher or another group of students), as to what their new nation should look like. What kind of government would be best? What rights should people have? Should everyone have the same rights?


While each group makes a 3-5 minute presentation, other groups should be following along with their graphic organizer and writing down questions to ask of them. After the group presentation, students from other groups get to question them. The United States should also ask clarifying questions. This discussion should take about 40 minutes.





Students will write a reflection on the discussion and overall lesson. The reflection will require them to answer the following prompts/questions:


  1. In your own words, define “rights.”
  2. Which of the Enlightenment thinkers do you think was closest to the truth?
  3. What is the purpose of government?
  4. How was this discussion of rights and the purpose of government different from notions of government we saw earlier in the semester (feudalism, absolute monarchs, etc.)?
  5. How do rights affect your day-to-day life?


Be sure to write in complete sentences and paragraphs. Use evidence from any of the activities to support your answers. 



ADEF: Bill of Rights & the American Constitution Copyright © by Zumbrunnen. All Rights Reserved.