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.