When you talk about the Declaration of Independence in that American history class you’re in, you probably imagine an old sheet of parchment with fancy calligraphy writing and John Hancock’s looming signature – right? That’s Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Declaration, which he wrote in 1776 and is now at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
But last year, Danielle Allen, Harvard’s James Bryant Conant University Professor, found another parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence. She and a colleague, Emily Sneff, were researching for Declaration Resources Project, which came out of her book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration if Independence in Defense of Equality, the 2017-18 One Book, One Northwestern. In late April, they announced their results – which Allen called “the most exciting research discovery of my life” on Twitter – at a conference.
So proud to share most exciting research discovery of my life: A New Parchment Declaration of Independence Surfaces. https://t.co/OQ0hQdk1sk— Danielle Allen (@dsallentess) April 21, 2017
“It’s funny because I know the story sounds like there was just this big lightbulb moment, but the truth is there’s been this long and laborious process,” Allen said. After finding the copy of the Declaration of Independence, she worked with Sneff to verify that it was a parchment copy from the era, along with finding out who it was commissioned by.
And what’d they find? Allen said there’s a strong case that James Wilson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, commissioned it in the 1780s. They’ve tied Wilson to the most striking difference between this copy of the Declaration and Jefferson’s original – in the newfound copy, the signatures aren’t organized by states. Wilson favored a strong federal government, and Allen and Sneff argue that his refusal to organize the signatories by state on this copy of the Declaration strengthened this argument.
“One of the longest-running arguments in American constitutional history is whether or not the Constitution is a rupture from the Declaration of Independence or continuous with it,” Allen said. “What this parchment helps us see is how one person in particular, James Wilson, really tried really hard to connect the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
Obviously, a discovery like this has already shaken academic fields like history and political science. Here at Northwestern, Susan Gaunt Stearns, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Legal Studies, found Allen and Sneff’s focus on the order of signed names to be interesting.
“I think that their point is compelling, that it's an attempt at a political statement … of the unity of the people,” Stearns said. “But I think that that's tough to say, conclusively.”
While Allen and Sneff have emphasized their case for Wilson as the person who commissioned the document, Stearns said she’d like to know more information about the document itself.
“I thought about the movie National Treasure … finding a secret Declaration of Independence, essentially,” Stearns said. “I wondered, How did it end up where it ended up? What was its story?”
Perhaps Allen will touch on that when she comes to campus Oct. 19 for a keynote address. But for now, the NU community will have Our Declaration, distributed to first-year students over the summer and informing programs throughout the 2017-18 school year.
Allen’s book has been lauded for its modern take on the Declaration. According to Allen, this discovery – and its place in the debate over states’ rights – is even more relevant today.
“It goes right to the heart of the structure of our political institutions,” Allen said. “That compromise is the reason one person in an election can win the popular vote, like Hillary Clinton, and another person can win the Electoral College, like Donald Trump. … It has defined our political history.”