American Declaration of Independence parchment found in Sussex is authentic

A copy of the American Declaration of Independence found in Chichester has been verified as one of only two ceremonial parchment copies in the world.

ks170849-2 Chi American Declaration phot kate
Wendy Walker, county archivist, with the document.ks1708499-2 SUS-170425-162515008
ks170849-2 Chi American Declaration phot kate Wendy Walker, county archivist, with the document.ks1708499-2 SUS-170425-162515008

The rare parchment was tracked down by Harvard academics last year at the West Sussex Records Office, where it had been kept neatly folded in the archive for 50 years.

Today’s announcement means testing and authentication work on the document has been completed in time for the 242nd anniversary of American Independence Day July 4, 1776.

Louise Goldsmith, leader of West Sussex County Council, said: “This is such terrific news about the Sussex Declaration. We have all been waiting to hear what the experts have been able to discover for us and now we know!

ks170849-5 Chi American Declaration phot kate Lucy Maguire in the conservation department with a copy of the original.ks170849-5 SUS-170425-162535008

“Our Records Office holds many fascinating treasures – but this treasure of a document is very, very special indeed.

“So we very much welcome this interest in the West Sussex archives and the work of the Record Office, which acts as the custodian for thousands of documents with a West Sussex link stretching back to 780.”

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The Sussex Declaration. West Sussex Record Office Add Mss 8981. Photo by Danielle Allen

Non-invasive testing by researchers has revealed a date beneath an erasure on the document which reads either “July 4, 178” or “July 4, 179”.

Academics and conservation scientists say it is impossible to say whether there was originally a fourth digit in the year.

The Sussex Declaration, as it is now known, is believed to have been held originally by the Third Duke of Richmond, known as the “Radical Duke” for his support of the Americans during the Revolution.

The parchment is, however, American and is most likely to have been produced in New York or Philadelphia and researchers are still working out how the parchment moved to the UK.

Unique out of all other 18th century versions of the Declaration, the names on the list of signatories in the Sussex Declaration are not grouped by states.

The Harvard team believe the unusual listing is reflective of the views of its most likely commissioner, James Wilson, who argued the authority of the Declaration rested on a unitary national people, and not on a federation of states.

DNA testing also revealed the parchment was prepared from sheepskin, rather than more expensive calfskin and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) capture showed high iron content in holes in the corner of the parchment, possibly iron nails to hang the parchment at some point.

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West Sussex County Archivist Wendy Walker said: “We are extremely excited to hear that Harvard’s research and the scientific analyses confirms the historical significance and importance of this archive.

“It is a fascinating document and it has been fantastic for us to work with colleagues at Harvard, the Library of Congress and the British Library to find out more about the story that surrounds it.”

The discoveries are set to be published by Harvard academics Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff in their paper, “The Sussex Declaration,” in the Proceedings of the Bibliographic Society of America this autumn.

Work on the parchment was a collaboration between Allen, Sneff, researchers at the West Sussex Record Office, British Library, Library of Congress, and the University of York.

At 24” x 30.5” the parchment is on the same ornamental scale as the only other known contemporary manuscript of the Declaration of Independence on parchment, the engrossed parchment at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which was signed by the delegates to Continental Congress.

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