Emily Sneff, Cincinnati and Barra Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center, is a historian of early America and the Declaration of Independence. Her dissertation, “When the Declaration of Independence was News,” traces the Declaration’s journey through the United States and around the Atlantic world in the summer and fall of 1776. We spoke with Sneff about her fellowship at the McNeil Center and why her connection with Philadelphia’s history runs so deep.
Q: What drew you to the study of early America?
Sneff: Thomas Jefferson. But not in the way you might expect! My undergraduate training was in Medieval history and museum studies. After graduation, I volunteered in the European Decorative Arts and Sculpture department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to gain more hands-on experience as I looked for a full-time museum position. The curator, Jack Hinton, was so encouraging, and when he heard that the American Philosophical Society was looking for someone to research the conservation history of their bust of Jefferson by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Jack sensed that I was the right person for the job. It was at the APS that I first started working on the Declaration of Independence.
Q: If you could see or visit a particular historical artifact, what would it be and why?
Sneff: I have researched a few unique and intriguing copies of the Declaration of Independence in my career so far, but there is one particular copy I would love to see. In the mid-1780s, the Marquis de Lafayette supposedly had a copy of the Declaration of Independence engraved in gold on one side of a double frame. The other side was empty, waiting for a French declaration. If this gold Declaration of Independence still exists—if it ever really did exist—I would love to see it.
Q: What is something that you’ve read or watched recently, that other early Americanists may find interesting?
Sneff: I was delighted see a Hamilton-knockoff dinner theater musical called “Frankly, Franklin!” in the sixth episode of Poker Face. There are even demos (https://play.reelcrafter.com/AngelaParrish/franklyfranklin) for songs about Franklin’s arrival in Philadelphia, Poor Richard’s Almanac, the Declaration of Independence, and the postal system.
Q: What do you see as some of the challenges or opportunities that early Americanists are working on in the 21st century?
Sneff: I am excited to be a part of a cohort of historians who are writing about transatlantic communication in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although the pace of news today is different, there is still a lot we can learn about timing, bias, media literacy, and misinformation by studying early American news. As more newspapers are digitized on both sides of the Atlantic many more histories of communication will become possible.
Q: What do you find more enjoyable/rewarding about the research process?
Sneff: The most enjoyable part of my research has been working with non-English copies and extracts of the Declaration of Independence. The German translations of the Declaration produced in July 1776 are beautiful reminders of the vibrant and politically active German-American community in the Philadelphia area, including ancestors on both sides of my family. But, by also looking at European newspapers, my dissertation includes sources in German, Dutch, French, Danish, Polish, Swedish, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. I don’t know any of these languages well, but I am good at identifying John Hancock’s name in the newspapers, whether it’s John, Jean, Jan, Juan, Johann, Giovanni…
Q: What are some of the highlights of your time spent in Philadelphia as a McNeil Center fellow?
Sneff: I am originally from the Philadelphia suburbs, and a considerable portion of my dissertation takes place in Philadelphia, so I was looking forward to coming home and feeling rooted in the Philadelphia of 1776. But it has been wonderful to share my love for Philly with the other fellows. It helps that the Phillies, Union, and Eagles have all gotten to championship games during my time as a fellow. As a superstitious Philly sports fan, I think I will have to stay a part of the MCEAS community just to avoid jinxing my teams!
Emily Sneff is a Cincinnati and Barra Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Harrison Ruffin Tyler Department of History at William & Mary. Sneff earned a B.A. in History and a minor in Museums and Society from Johns Hopkins University and received her M.A. in History from William & Mary. To learn more about Sneff’s work, view her dissertation summary, or visit Emily Sneff’s website.