Every Historian Her Own Adventurer

This spring, early Americanists were abuzz about “a bit of real-life archival drama,” as Harvard scholars Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff announced that they had discovered something pretty amazing: an unknown, manuscript, parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence. As friend-of-the-field Jennifer Schuessler playfully reported in the New York Times, it was all a little National Treasure. The apparently random order of the signatures on this manuscript, compared to other versions, points towards some interesting implications, involving Philadelphia Federalist James Wilson and attempts to build a unified American nationhood in the new republic. But reactions to Allen and Sneff’s announcement also, I think, tell us something about how knowledge of the past is structured, presented, and consumed.

Actually, it wasn’t the first time James Wilson got himself involved in such a moment. Back in the halcyon days of early 2010, researcher Lorianne Updike Toler (as it happens, we were on the same Masters programme at the time) announced that she had found an undiscovered draft of the Constitution itself, written by Wilson. In an account given to the Philadelphia Inquirer, she spoke of the “sort of hushed awe that settled over the reading room” as everyone “realized what was happening.” In a world sometimes short on wonder, the notion of discovery is a powerful one. It captures attention, and it offers inspiration too. It whispers that perhaps you, too, could find something that no-one knew was there.

The thing is, of course, that both these moments of discovery occurred in existing archives. As John Kaminski put it of the constitution draft, “it was in Wilson’s papers, where it should have been.” And as Schuessler’s article about the Declaration manuscript makes clear, Sneff found the document listed “in an online catalog of British archives,” and had archivists send over an image before making the trip to Chichester. Does that bring into question the idea of “discovery”? At least some readers thought the claim was overstated:

Historians aren’t Indiana Jones (and the truth is, I suspect, most archaeologists aren’t either!). Sneff and Allen’s find relied on the work of archivists over generations, and on government-backed organisations like the UK’s Public Record Office and the US’s National Archives, as well as private charitable institutions like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Funding pools like the National Endowment for the Humanities create the infrastructure without which these documents would likely remain “undiscovered,” and eventually cease to exist altogether.

Yet the existence of a document in an archive somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be “discovered.” In a 2012 exchange in The Atlantic, Helena Iles Papaioannou of the Abraham Lincoln Papers argued convincingly that “if someone uncovers something unknown in living memory (or in the historiographical record) this counts as a discovery.” After all, archives aren’t usually catalogued on the level of individual documents—and even when they are, as with the Declaration manuscript, they can still be unknown to communities that turn out to be interested. In this sense, historians are discovering things all the time. What matters, and what makes those moments of discovery feel so good, is the context that gives them significance.

Since the Declaration and the Constitution are American scripture, we take their significance effectively for granted. Most of what historians do, most of the time, though, is about constructing the contexts that give our own (or others’) archival discoveries meaning—building routes by which readers can access them, and see them in the same way we do. To be honest, I get more joy following my colleagues’ archival adventures, seeking out discoveries whose meaning is embedded in a more personal set of ideas and concerns, than I do from the ready-mades that make the headlines. But I hope we keep celebrating our discoveries, while giving credit to the many whose work makes it possible. The past demands continual re-discovery, as the contexts for its meaning change, and the communities for its reception shift and grow.

8 responses

  1. Last year, we learned that the long-lost draft by John Jay of THE FEDERALIST No. 2 had turned up in the manuscript collection of the Brooklyn Historical Society, owing to the detective work of Jennifer Steenshorne of the Jay Papers project led by Betty Nuxoll. I think that Steenshorne’s find counts as a discovery because of the length of time that the manuscript had been thought to be lost, the long and winding trail that Steenshorne followed, and the significance of the recovery of only the fifth known FEDERALIST draft.

    • The situation you describe seems a different circumstance more worthy of the term “discovery.” The parchment in the NYT story was already correctly identified and listed in the institution’s online catalogue.

      That is very different than, for example, two instances I’ve been fortunate to be a part of, i.e., the finding by a friend of a previously unknown draft of a 1775 Continental Congress document in a historical site’s attic which I helped identify and my own finding and identification of an original draft manuscript of the first six chapters of David Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution, which was sitting in an unrelated mss collection and misidentified in the institution’s catalogue (according to the wrong info on the actual manuscript’s title page). In the former case, a document not known to be extant was found; in the latter, a document not known to be extant and previously misidentified was correctly identified. Neither of those criteria (i.e., document was unknown to exist and/or was previously un- or mis-identified) were the case here.

      That is not to take away from the scholarly work Sneff and Allen are doing on the significance and provenance of the parchment but the reporting on it has framed the significance of their work as a “discovery.” Now I understand that is likely not their doing and newspapers need headlines, but I think it does diminish the efforts of the archivists who first discovered and catalogued the document.

      tl;dr: There are different kinds of archival findings that we might genuinely call “discoveries.” IMHO, this is not one of them, though that isn’t meant to diminish the research being done on the catalogued document.

      • Great post, Tom. Always a good day to be cited at The Junto!

        Michael, appreciate the thoughtful comments, but I do think the rhetoric of discovery is warranted here. The catalog entry (made in 50s, digitized around 2003) just said “Manuscript copy, on parchment, of the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America.” Sneff/Allen said they thought it was likely a 19th-century replica of some kind, of the sort they had found elsewhere (hence Emily’s initial skepticism). I spoke to the current archivist, and she said they were very surprised to learn what it (apparently) is.

        I get the frustration among some on Twitter that the labor of archivists gets downplayed, but I think a bit of a misleading counter-narrative is taking hold in this case. That this was a copy of the DOI handwritten on parchment was obvious, and not in itself necessarily of any interest. The discovery (and the hard work) lies in establishing it as an American document from the 1780s. That was Allen & Sneff.

        • Jenny, you make an excellent point and thank you for the additional information. As I mentioned, I did not mean to diminish the scholarly work they have done (and are continuing to do) on the document. Unfortunately, archivists and librarians play a role that is crucial to historical research but is far too often invisible and almost always unappreciated by the general public. To that end, as I’ve noted before, your excellent work in bringing these kinds of stories and issues to the attention of the general public is greatly appreciated by many historians and, in these times, serves an important public service.

          • Thanks, Michael. Just wanted to fill some info I had to leave out of the story. There were some pissed-off archivists on Twitter who had the (mistaken) impression the scholars, as one put it, just googled. And I do think the tweet highlighted in this post perpetuates that idea…

            But enough. Moving on to proving that Andrew Jackson would’ve stopped the Civil War! (or perhaps won it for the Confederacy?)

  2. Discoveries are often a matter of context — of having something that was hidden in plain sight take on significance because the historian brings new background to the item. Case in point: in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the gift of the cherry trees from Japan to America, the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Forum picked up on a statement, in Ann McClellan’s anniversary book, from the autobiography of Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki. He said that he provided the cherry trees ‘to thank the US for its help during the Russo-Japanese War.’ The help provided was the back channel diplomacy of President Theodore Roosevelt in orchestrating the negotiations that led to the Portsmouth Peace Treaty, ending that war. Even the Ambassador of Japan to the US then noted in a Washington Post op-ed that the DC cherry trees and Portsmouth Peace Treaty were directly linked. Something that helps bring new interest to the story we’re trying to tell.

  3. Pingback: Every Historian Her Own Adventurer, or, don’t forget the archivist | Buffalo Doug


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