"Historic Manuscript Found in a Garret"

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Detail from the New York Times for January 1, 1901.

The story relayed in the New York Times article, "Historic Manuscript Found in a Garret,"[1] occurred "several years" before its publication, taking place prior to 1896. It tells of the rediscovery of Jefferson's third (fair copy) draft of the Declaration of Independence, reportedly handed down from the family of Richard Henry Lee (but suspected of being the copy sent to George Wythe). The manuscript was found "in the attic of one of the old Lee houses in Virginia" by Cassius F. Lee, and sold to the attorney and collector Elliot Danforth, of New York. Danforth "kept it for several years" before selling the document to Dr. Thomas A. Emmet, whose large collection of American manuscripts from revolutionary era were presented to the New York Public Library in 1896.[2]

Article text, 6 January 1901

Page 8


Original Draft of the Declaration of

The rescue of a copy of one of the most historic documents in the history of the United States—the Declaration of Independence—from destruction in a Southern attic is one of the achievements which Elliot Danforth, lawyer and politician, is proud. The document was in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson. It was lost and forgotten, and in a few years would have been destroyed by worms if Mr. Danforth in one of his rambles over historic grounds had not thought of the document.

It is supposed that there were but five drafts of the Declaration of Independence in the hand of Thomas Jefferson. One of these copies was sent by Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin. His other associates on the committee, John Adams, Richard R. Livingston, Richard Henry Lee, and Roger Sherman, were supposed to have received copies. The searchers after historic manuscripts located all the copies of the Declaration in Jefferson's hand except that supposed to have been sent to Richard Henry Lee. This draft was classed among the lost historic records.

Mr. Danforth several years ago thought that a search for the missing document should be made. He went to Alexandria, Va., the home of some descendants of the Revolutionary Lee family. The story of the search is best told in Mr. Danforth's own words.

"I was on my way south several years ago, and the thought struck me that I would stop at some of the historic places to try and find some documents for my collection. The thought came to my mind the possibility the Lee copy of the Declaration of Independence might be in existence somewhere."

"I visited Alexandria and attended the church in which Washington worshipped. I made the acquaintance of Cassius F. Lee of Virginia, a direct descendant of Richard Henry Lee and in conversation I talked about the number of historic papers and autographs I had of men famous in the early history of this country. We talked about the Lee family documents, and I bought from Mr. Cassius F. Lee at that time several letters written by and sent to Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. During the conversation I spoke to Mr. Lee about the supposed existence of a copy of the Declaration of Independence in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson, sent to his illustrious ancestor. Mr. Lee said that he thought that somewhere among the old papers of the Lee family it might be found. I remarked casually to him: 'If you run across it, let me know and I will be glad to possess it. You can name you own price for the document.'"

"I did not again visit Alexandria, but kept the matter in mind, intending some time to find out what efforts Cassius F. Lee had made to find the Lee draft."

"Several years after I was surprised to receive a letter. It was to the effect that after a long search Mr. Cassius F. Lee had discovered, in the attic of one of the old Lee houses in Virginia, the missing document, and offering to dispose if it for $300. I promptly sent him the check and received the draft. I was surprised when it reached me. In a few years the valuable document would have been destroyed by moths. It was in fairly good condition, however. There were some little holes in the paper, which I suppose were made by mice. When I examined the document carefully, I was more than pleased. I found it to be one of the best specimens of handwriting of Thomas Jefferson in existence. The writing was clear and distinct. The draft of the Declaration was written on paper about the size of foolscap. I think there are three or four pages written on both sides."

The subsequent history of the draft is also surprising. Mr. Danforth kept it for several years among his valuable collection of Revolutionary documents. Another collector named Dr. Thomas A. Emmett, a warm personal friend of Mr. Danforth, prized the Jefferson document highly. He kept talking about the intense desire he had to possess some handwriting of Thomas Jefferson, and one day he said to Mr. Danforth:

"You and I have been dear friends. I would prize that Jefferson draft more than anything else in the world. Sell it to me for $2,500. You will make me happy by so doing."

Mr. Danforth, much against his judgment from the mercenary standpoint, said:

"All right doctor. You shall have the draft. I know it is worth much more, but it cost me only $300. I am glad to put it in the hands of an old friend." When telling the story to a Times reporter, Mr. Danforth shook his head and said:

"I could not resist selling it to Dr. Emmett at his figure."

"What is the document worth now?"

"I suppose about $25,000. In a few years it would be of almost priceless value in the hands of a private collector. No one can tell how much. In twenty years some wealthy man might have been very willing to pay $50,000 or even more. Copies of the Declaration of Independence in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson are not to be found every day."

The Declaration has found a resting place in the Lenox Library collection. The four foolscap pages were taken by Dr. Emmett and he had them handsomely inlaid by Trent.

The historic papers which Dr. Emmett collected were sold to the Lennox Library for a very large sum of money, and the Declaration was the most highly valued document.

Mrs. Danforth, the wife of Elliot Danforth, is also a bibliographer. Mrs. Danforth is the only woman in the United States who possesses a complete set of the original autographs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. There are about twenty-five complete sets in existence. Mr. Danforth has one set and his wife another. A set of these autographs was sold a few years ago for $4,650.

In speaking of his Revolutionary collection, Mr. Danforth said:

"I have a very fine collection of autographs of famous Generals who fought in the Revolution. Among them are thos of Gen. Washington, Richard Montgomery, 'Mad Anthony' Wayne, Nathaniel Green, the two Clintons, James and George; Schuyler, Knox, Putnam, Gates, and many others. I have sets of autograph letters and documents of the famous Republican Convention of 1754 and the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. I have a set of autographs of members of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789, with Presidents, Vice Presidents, United States Senators from New York. I have a set of the autographs of signers of the Articles of Confederation, the members of the Federal Convention, the Hartford Convention, and the Convention to frame the Constitution of the United States of 1787."

In Mr. Danforth's collection is the letter Gov. Pickens sent to Gen. Beauregard, ordering him to open fire on Fort Sumter the following morning.

The great value which may be attached to the autograph of a person unknown to fame, except as the signer of some old document, is shown by a story told by Mr. Danforth.

"I had a complete copy of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and another set with the autograph of Button Gwinett of Georgia missing. I told Mrs. Danforth if she would purchase that autograph I would give her the balance of the set. Charles P. Greenough of Boston had the autograph needed, and Mrs. Danforth paid $650 for a very small slip of paper. It was not such a bad bargain, as she received for $650 a complete set. The last sale of such a set was for $4,650."

Among the other historic documents which Mr. Danforth possesses is a letter written by President Lincoln on war topics.

See also


  1. New York Times, "Historic Manuscript Found in a Garret," January 6, 1901, 8.
  2. Thomas Addis Emmet collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, EM1524.