Compared to the instantaneous news cycle of our time, word of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 moved at a snail’s pace. It took a couple of days to reach New York City and two weeks to make it to Virginia. By the first week of August, news had spread throughout the 13 states and was making its way to Europe.
But back then, that was considered swift.
“I think for the most part, at that particular moment in the American Revolutionary War, news was traveling pretty quickly because the stakes were so high,” said Emily Sneff M.A. ’19, a doctoral candidate at William & Mary who is currently working on her dissertation titled, “When Independence was Declared: The Founding Document of the United States as Breaking News.”
Sneff likes to think about how news of the Declaration would have spread during our current time of social media immersion and the 24-hour news cycle. Word would have reached the masses in short order via the major T.V. networks and a tsunami of tweets and Instagram posts.
“Today we would know immediately, but we may not know the importance immediately,” said Sneff, who recently participated in a documentary airing on public television called “We Hold These Truths: The Global Quest for Liberty.” “It may still take time to see other tweets, see other news trends, see commentary and critique and then have an understanding of its importance.”
Sneff’s expertise is in how news of the Declaration spread throughout the Atlantic world. She received an appointment in 2022 as a Cincinnati Barra Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies (MCEAS) to support her work, which has included scouring the United States and Europe for unique copies of the Declaration.
The fellowship for the 2022-23 academic year at the McNeil Center on the campus of University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is critical in many ways for Sneff’s research. The location, in particular, is central to her work.
“The McNeil Center is – along with the Omohundro Institute at William & Mary – one of the top institutes for the study of early American history, and the MCEAS has the most significant pre-doctoral fellowship program,” said Nicholas Popper, associate professor of history at W&M and a member of Sneff’s doctoral committee.
“The MCEAS fellowship is also particularly appropriate for Emily both because of its prestige and because it also will allow her a year to pursue research in Philadelphia-area archives which house a significant portion of the sources for her dissertation.”
Sneff, who grew up just outside of Philadelphia, shifted the work she did at W&M, the alma mater of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s principal author, to University of Pennsylvania, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin, one of the document’s five drafters along with Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman.
“I’m staying within the Committee of Five, I guess,” she said with a laugh.
Every copy has a story to tell
Sneff’s research has involved finding and documenting unique versions of the Declaration, from manuscripts on paper and parchment to poster-sized broadsides and copies published in newspapers in the weeks after July 4. She studies notes written in the margins of some copies of the Declaration and also versions of the document that have passages redacted.
“This project is different from most of the historiography of the Declaration, which focuses on its legacy and influences on Thomas Jefferson as the principal author, because I am most interested in the months when the Declaration was breaking news, its authorship was not widely known, and independence was not yet secured militarily,” Sneff said.
“My motto is that every copy of the Declaration has a story to tell.”
Sneff’s focus is on the eight months between May 15, when a resolution calling for the colonies to replace their British governments was proposed, and January 1777 when news of the Declaration had reached the 13 states and most of Europe.
She estimates she has found over 100 different versions of the Declaration from that eight-month period alone.
“I think just acknowledging that there are a lot of copies of the Declaration that all have unique contexts creates a history that people are more able to tap into,” Sneff said.
Sneff’s work uncovers something new about the founding of America as we approach the 250th anniversary in 2026, said W&M Professor Joshua Piker, a member of Sneff’s doctoral committee.
“It is a beautifully conceived project that would be welcome at any moment but that is perfectly timed for this one,” Piker said. “And the fact that ‘this one’ could refer to either our current historiographical moment or our field’s current need to help shape a nationwide celebration of a key moment in early American history shows the power and timeliness of Sneff’s project.”
The most significant version of the Declaration that Sneff has uncovered is the Sussex Declaration, only the second-known parchment manuscript of the Declaration along with the original engrossed and signed parchment located in the National Archives.
Sneff was working as a research manager for Harvard Professor Danielle Allen with the Declaration Resources Project in 2015 when the two found the Sussex Declaration in the archives of the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, England. The two went on a media tour recounting the magnificent find with coverage from many outlets, including The New York Times, CBS This Morning and Fox News.
Someone along the line had catalogued the Sussex Declaration, which has been dated to the 1780s-90s, but didn’t include details about why it was significant.
“It was a totally remarkable parchment, but I think at some point it had just been folded up like any other parchment, and outside of the United States there’s less of an understanding of the importance of copies of the Declaration or even that there is a copy of the Declaration,” Sneff said.
Sneff returned to Chichester last year for an event about the Sussex Declaration. The parchment, which was originally stored in a records room, is now displayed in a “beautiful case” and is much more secured for posterity, Sneff said.
“The West Sussex Record Office has been able to create so much content and community engagement from the Sussex Declaration. It’s really wonderful to see,” Sneff said.
Sneff says her work with the Declaration Resources Project sparked her interest in trying to find as many unique versions of the Declaration possible. The project’s database, last updated in August 2018, lists 747 variations of the Declaration.
Working to unearth every copy of the Declaration, “really takes the Declaration off of the bulletproof glass-enclosed pedestal and makes it feel like a history that’s much more approachable and that we can sort of question,” Sneff said.
“We can call out the hypocrisy that’s in the Declaration. We can acknowledge that there’s a slur against Native Americans in the Declaration, and we can think about how that news would have been perceived by people who were living in 1776. Not just the super patriots, but people who were more ambiguous about Independence or women or people in lower classes or enslaved people, people who didn’t have the same access to political rights that the people in Congress did.”
‘More inclusive and a lot bigger’
The story of the Declaration of Independence was instilled in Sneff at a young age. She affectionately refers to a trip she took as a sixth-grader with her dad to visit Franklin’s printing office and his gravesite in Philadelphia as her first research trip.
Her grandparents lived in Philadelphia and often took Sneff to visit Independence Hall.
She made the shift from medieval history to early American history after earning her undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University and was immediately struck by an element of the history of the Declaration of Independence that received less attention than the Founding Fathers themselves.
“What jumped out to me was the importance of acknowledging that the Declaration of Independence is not just the parchment that’s in our National Archives,” Sneff said. “There are all these other copies, and when we think about other manuscript copies, other printed copies and where they have all ended up, the story actually becomes a lot more inclusive and a lot bigger.”
Sneff’s dissertation highlights the importance of timing and coincidences, including Portugal banning all American ships from its ports on July 4, not because of the Declaration but because of the May 15 resolution that foreshadowed American independence. Portugal acted because it didn’t want to lose British support, Sneff said.
Other coincidences included an exchange between a Bostonian woman named Polly Palmer and John Adams. Palmer, a family friend of Adams and his wife Abigail, sent a letter to John in June 1776 to alert him to a skirmish between American and British ships. He received the letter in the first days of July and replied with a message of thanks and included a copy of the Declaration.
“She personally received a copy of the Declaration, one of the first printed copies, from one of the men who wrote it,” Sneff said.
“Polly Palmer is not a name you associate with the Declaration of Independence, and yet she plays this really important part when we think about correspondence networks and the coincidence of timing and things.
“I think it immediately takes the focus off of people like John Adams and puts it on other people and makes you think about where copies of the Declaration went and how people received them and what they thought when they first heard the news of independence.”
Sneff is currently hunting for copies of the Declaration in Turkey and Russia. She is leaving no stone unturned in her quest to discover new copies of the document to tell the story of how and when the news of America’s independence reached the rest of the world.
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist