Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times [original article contains links and additional illustrations]
Image from article, with caption: A parchment manuscript of the Declaration of Independence, believed to date from the 1780s and held in the West Sussex Record Office in England
Archival research doesn’t get much more exciting than the 2004 heist movie
“National Treasure.” Nicolas Cage, playing a historian named Benjamin Franklin
Gates, discovers a coded map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.
Globe-spanning intrigue ensues — accompanied, offscreen, by a tsunami of eye-rolling
by actual historians.
But now, in a bit of real-life archival drama, a pair of scholars are announcing a
surprising discovery: a previously unknown early handwritten parchment of the
Declaration, buried in a provincial archive in Britain.
The document is the only other 18th-century handwritten parchment
Declaration known to exist besides the one from 1776 now displayed at the National
Archives in Washington. It isn’t an official government document, like the 1776
parchment, but a display copy created in the mid-1780s, the researchers argue, by
someone who wanted to influence debate over the Constitution.
It may not hold the key to a Masonic conspiracy, as in “National Treasure.” But
its subtle details, the scholars argue, illuminate an enduring puzzle at the heart of
American politics: Was the country founded by a unitary national people, or by a
collection of states? [JB emphasis]
“That is really the key riddle of the American system,” said Danielle Allen, a
professor of government at Harvard, who discovered the document with a colleague,
That riddle has bedeviled American history, from debates over Southern
secession to calls to abolish the Electoral College today. And it was the burning
question in the mid-1780s, when the American experiment was at risk of falling
apart, and the push for a federal constitution, creating a strong national government
(with, crucially, the right to tax), gained steam.
The new parchment will hardly end the argument. But it “really shifts our
understanding in how the nationalist position emerged,” Ms. Allen said.
It remains to be seen what scholars will make of the discovery, which will be
announced on Friday at a conference at Yale. A paper, posted online, runs through a
wealth of textual and material evidence supporting the claim that the document,
while found in Britain, was created in America in the 1780s. Ms. Allen and Ms.
Sneff’s conference presentation will focus on their leading candidate for person
behind it: James Wilson, a Pennsylvania lawyer and one of the strongest nationalists
at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, who probably commissioned the parchment.
Some historians who have previewed their research are impressed.
“The sleuthing they’ve done is just remarkable,” said Benjamin Irvin, an
associate professor of history at the University of Arizona and the author of “Clothed
in Robes of Sovereignty,” a 2011 study of the Continental Congress. The
identification as American, from the mid-1780s, he added, “looks pretty watertight.”
And the whodunit? William Ewald, a legal historian at the University of
Pennsylvania Law School who is writing a biography of Wilson, said he found the
case for Wilson — one of six men who signed both the Declaration and the
Constitution, and the rare founder to invoke the earlier document in the 1780s —
Even if that attribution is wrong, Mr. Ewald added, the parchment is still “the
discovery of a lifetime.”
“Every 20 years or so, someone discovers an unknown copy of one of the
newspaper printings,” he said. “But a new formal parchment — how many people
can say they found that?”
The new discovery grew out of the Declaration Resources Project, which Ms.
Allen, the author of the book “Our Declaration,” created in 2015 as a clearinghouse
for information about the myriad versions — newspaper printings, broadsides,
ornamental engravings — that circulated in the decades after independence.
So far, the project’s database counts some 306 made between July 4, 1776, when
Congress commissioned a broadside from the Philadelphia printer John Dunlap,
and 1800. (The parchment “original” at the National Archives was in fact signed in
early August 1776, nearly a month after independence.)
Soon after the effort started, Ms. Sneff, the project manager, noticed an entry in
an online catalog of British archives listing a parchment copy of the Declaration held
by the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, England, but providing no date or
“I was very skeptical but intrigued,” she said. (The document, deposited in West
Sussex in 1956, had come from a law firm connected with the dukes of Richmond.)
She requested an image. Then, last summer, she and Ms. Allen traveled to
Britain to see the original, which had been folded into a small square.
“I was on pins and needles,” Ms. Allen recalled. “I thought we would turn it over
and the back would say, ‘Ha, ha, we fooled you!’”
The parchment — the only known iteration of the Declaration oriented
horizontally — was stylistically similar to 18th-century American legal and
mercantile documents, suggesting it was made by a commercial clerk, probably in
New York or Philadelphia. (A comparison with more than 150 handwriting samples
drew no matches to known individuals.)
Some details of the text suggest that whoever created it had had access to
congressional records, including the 1776 parchment. But it deviated from that
parchment — along with every known 18th-century version of the Declaration — in
one striking respect: the ordering of the 56 signatures.
All known 18th-century iterations, Ms. Allen said, show the signatures grouped
by state, with some printers even adding state labels. But here they were all jumbled.
“I just kept staring at it,” she said. “There was no discernible order.”
But then she labeled each name with the number of the column it appeared in
on the 1776 parchment, and noticed that they alternated in a clear pattern — a
pattern, she and Ms. Sneff argue, created with help from a well-known 18th-century
That random order, Ms. Allen and Ms. Sneff argue, was meant to send a
political message: The signers pledged “to each other our lives, our fortunes and our
sacred honor,” as the last line puts it, as individuals, not as representatives of states.
And that message, they argue, points to Wilson.
Today, he is remembered by the public, if he is remembered at all, as the flip-flopper
in the musical “1776,” who can’t decide whether or not to vote for
independence. But at the Constitutional Convention, he was the leading voice for a
strong national government, undergirded by popular sovereignty.
“Can we forget for whom we are forming a government?” Wilson said. “Is it for
men, or for the imaginary beings called states?”
He was also the rare politician of the 1780s to repeatedly cite the Declaration —
a document whose history he would have had the chance to ponder, Ms. Allen and
Ms. Sneff note, during research he is known to have done in 1785 in the archives of
the Continental Congress.
“Before he does that archival work, he doesn’t reference the Declaration,” Ms.
Allen said. Afterward, “he always cites it” when making the nationalist argument.
There are other riddles to be unwoven, including with just how the document
got to England. The researchers’ preliminary hypothesis? It passed into the
possession of the third Duke of Richmond, a supporter of American independence,
possibly through Thomas Paine.
But for now, they point to a broader lesson: Every iteration of the Declaration
has a story to tell.
“This one,” Ms. Sneff said, “just happens to tell a pretty significant one.”