Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
Two weeks ago, my research partner, Emily Sneff, and I had the good fortune to be able to announce to the world that we had come across a heretofore unknown parchment manuscript of the Declaration of Independence. On the basis of material evidence, we have been able to date the parchment to the 1780s. On the basis of contextual evidence, we have identified Founder James Wilson as its most likely commissioner. None of this would have been possible without the great gains achieved for scholarship over the past three decades by digitization projects, many funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Because of where we found it, we have dubbed this parchment “The Sussex Declaration.” It arrived, thrice-folded, at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, England, in 1956, one of 77 miscellaneous documents deriving from a law firm that dates to the 18th century and that had long represented the Dukes of Richmond. We don’t know for sure yet that this parchment belonged to the dukes. We’re still working on that question. But we have solved the other key mysteries: when it was created, and what the context was of its creation.
In 1956, archivists created a catalog entry, which read, “Manuscript copy, on parchment, of the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America.” And then the Declaration was put away. Emily came across this catalog entry because, at Harvard University’s Declaration Resources Project, we are building a database of every known edition of the Declaration of Independence from 1776 to 1830. At the time, August 2015, we were combing through British catalogs. We were also trying to figure out which version King George III received and precisely when he got the news of independence. No one has answered those questions yet.
When she spotted the vague catalog entry, Emily reached out to the West Sussex Record Office and secured a photo. We were gobsmacked. My first email to Emily? “Holy history, Batman!”
We got to work trying to figure this thing out. Was it a 19th-century reproduction? Was it made in Britain or in the United States? Whose handwriting is it? Why was the list of signatories in no immediately discernible order? It had nail holes in the four corners: Where, when and why had it been hung? And why with nails, not in a frame? It is, after all, an elegant parchment.
When we traveled to Chichester, we found the parchment manuscript still in its “octavo” fold. No one had ever studied it, or tried to identify it.
To answer questions such as those above, we secured images of as many American parchments as we could find, ranging from documents of the 1740s to the mid-19th century. We also secured images of British parchments, with related styling, from the relevant period. We combed the letters of the Founders through the brilliant tool, Founders Online; and we pored over the resources in the University of Virginia’s magnificent database, Rotunda. We scoured every available American newspaper and pamphlet for references to the use of the Declaration of Independence. This was possible because of two remarkable digitized resources: Early American Imprints and Early American Newspapers. We read through the online journals of the Continental Congress, and the Confederation Congress, and the Constitutional Convention, all beautifully presented online by the Library of Congress.
In the middle of the 20th century, this research project would have consumed at least a lifetime, and possibly several. Without the digital resources listed above, it is highly unlikely that a researcher would have been able to assemble the vast body of evidence necessary to make the identification that we have made.
The National Endowment for the Humanities has helped fund every single one of the digital resources named above. Thanks to the NEH, and other similarly minded funders, we have been able to answer two out of three key mysteries in a mere 20 months.
The weekend we announced our research findings, many took to the streets to defend science. It is worth remembering that science’s fruits are harvested in the humanities, too, and that institutions like the endowments, the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences and the National Historic Publications and Records Commission bear a weighty responsibility. Thankfully, they have risen to the challenge. Thanks to their work, we all benefit from a clearer view of our national history.