Independence Day: Why Sussex holds a rare, original copy of the Declaration of Independence and how it played a central role in Donald Trump's UK visit in 2019

When Donald Trump – then American President – visited the UK in 2019 there was one document he was particularly fascinated to be shown. It was a rare parchment of the American Declaration of Independence held in Sussex.

Standing alongside UK Prime Minister Theresa May the document – which had only been authenticated the previous year – was formally unveiled to them.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” said West Sussex county archivist Wendy Walker at the time.

The document, which is one of only two known ceremonial parchment manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence, was packaged up in a secure, steel box, to be taken from the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester to 10 Downing Street and was presented to Donald Trump and Theresa May.

West Sussex County Archivist Wendy Walker delivered a presentation to President Donald Trump, Melania Trump, First Lady of the United States, Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip May. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking to SussexWorld and its weekly newspaper the Chichester Observer afterwards, Wendy said: “It was an extraordinary and very exciting day. I was up in Downing Street all day. I managed to show the declaration to the President and the Prime Minister and explained the significance of the document.

“President Trump asked lots of questions. He asked how many copies there were and asked about the differences between the two. We spoke about the possibility of it going to the USA for an exhibition. They were all really interested.

“It was a huge honour to be able to do that. It was very special. For five minutes in the three-day event a Sussex document took centre stage and it doesn’t get much better than that. It was definitely a day to remember.”

Comparing the presentation to the one she gave the Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their only visit to Sussex in the previous October, Wendy said: “This was more formal being in Downing Street but was an equally great experience.

“It’s an amazing document, it’s just so special. Lots of stories are attached to this document and there are more to come. It is a story that will live on.”

The rare parchment was tracked down by Harvard academics in 2017 at the West Sussex Records Office, where it had been kept neatly folded in the archive for 50 years.

A year later it was announced that means testing and authentication work on the document has been completed in time for the 242nd anniversary of American Independence Day July 4, 1776.

At the time, the then leader of West Sussex County Council Louise Goldsmith 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!

“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.”

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.

West Sussex County Archivist Wendy Walker said in 2018: “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.”

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.

See also – Why Joe Biden is the first American President to have Sussex ancestry. Until now, Sussex could only claim some fairly tenuous connections to one of the most powerful offices in the world. For example, Ulysses S. Grant became the first former president to visit Britain in 1877, and spent three days in late October staying at No.6 Eastern Terrace as the personal guest of the town and then MP, James Ashbury, although he had resigned his presidency some seven months earlier. But President Biden has a direct connection