“Manuscript copy, on parchment, of the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America.”
This is the data-entry tagline that got the attention of Emily Sneff, a researcher of the Declaration Research Project. She has seen many such 19th century versions of the original, yet this one caught her attention because it said, “Manuscript copy, on parchment.”
“I’d found vague descriptions of other copies of the Declaration that turned out to be 19th-century reproductions of the signed parchment in the National Archives, so that was what I was expecting,” Sneff said of her initial impression based on the catalog listing. “What struck me as significant was that it said manuscript on parchment.”
This got the focus from her team, and before long, she was in the tiny records office in the town of Chichester, UK.
She noticed certain marks that none other replications had, as well as the names of certain founding fathers were out of normal order.
“When I looked at it closely, I started to see details, like names that weren’t in the right order — John Hancock isn’t listed first, there’s a mark at the top that looks like an erasure, the text has very little punctuation in it — and it’s in a handwriting I hadn’t seen before,” she said. “As those details started adding up, I brought it to Danielle’s attention and we realized this was different from any other copy we had seen.”1
She is promoting a series of papers detailing her findings. The second paper, presented at a Yale University conference on Friday, argues that the document was probably commissioned by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who later helped draft the Constitution and was among the original justices of the Supreme Court.2