The first clue that the document existed came in 2015, when Sneff spotted an unusual listing from a catalogue for the West Sussex Record Office: “Manuscript copy, on parchment, of the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America.”
Sneff and Allen, who work with Harvard’s Declaration Resources Project, had been searching the catalogue for unrelated reasons. At the time, no one knew there was any other parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence besides the original one signed in 1776, kept at the National Archives in Washington.
“We had no reason to expect a document like this to exist at all,” Sneff told The Washington Post.
At first, she didn’t think much of the catalogue entry. “I’d found vague descriptions of other copies of the Declaration that turned out to be 19th-century reproductions of the signed parchment in the National Archives, so that was what I was expecting,” Sneff told the Harvard Gazette. “What struck me as significant was that it said manuscript on parchment.”
The West Sussex Record Office sent over photos of the actual document, which Sneff and Allen pored over.
“When I looked at it closely, I started to see details, like names that weren’t in the right order — John Hancock isn’t listed first, there’s a mark at the top that looks like an erasure, the text has very little punctuation in it — and it’s in a handwriting I hadn’t seen before,” Sneff told the Gazette. “As those details started adding up, I brought it to Danielle’s attention, and we realized this was different from any other copy we had seen.”
Over nearly two years, Sneff and Allen analyzed multiple aspects of the Sussex version of the Declaration of Independence, including the handwriting, the parchment itself and the signatories. They credit modern digitization projects for allowing them to authenticate the document as quickly as they did, which would not have been possible the last century.
“In 20 months … we were able to assemble a vast body of evidence,” Allen told The Post.
They have concluded that the “Sussex Declaration” likely dates to the 1780s and was made in New York or Philadelphia. It may have belonged to the Duke of Richmond — also known as the “Radical Duke” for his support of the American Revolution – though how and when the document arrived in England remains to be solved, Allen said.
What sets the Sussex copy apart from the National Archives copy is that the signatures are not grouped by state and that it is in relatively good condition. The original parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives is, alas, severely faded to the point that it’s nearly illegible. It also may have even defaced, according to experts who have studied it.
Last August, the Harvard researchers traveled to England to examine the Sussex Declaration in person for the first time. Photos of the newly discovered Declaration show crease marks indicating that it had been folded multiple times. There also was evidence that rodents had bitten the edge of the parchment, Sneff told The Post.
Beyond that, however, it was quite legible. “By comparison [to the National Archives document], it’s in tremendous shape in that we can read every single letter of the text,” Sneff said. “It was a completely unique experience to be able to see it in person.”
That the copy was made on a full piece of parchment paper — it measures about 24 by 30 inches — sets it apart from other copies of the Declaration of Independence that were made immediately after the document’s signing in 1776. Those copies, reproduced in broadsides, books, newspapers and manuscripts, were made to help spread the news that the colonies were claiming independence. At the time, parchment was for formal legal documents.
“This one stands out because it’s a full piece of parchment,” Allen said. “The large format of this makes it a ceremonial document.”
Sneff and Allen said they were trying to determine who commissioned the Sussex Declaration and why. They hypothesize that James Wilson, a Federalist Founding Father who argued for a strong central government, commissioned the parchment copy sometime in the 1780s, when the United States was still a fragile young nation. The scrambled signatures at the bottom of the Sussex Declaration would have supported Wilson’s argument that the country’s authority rested on the people rather than on the authority of 13 states, Allen said.
Though it is not legally binding like the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in American history. The second sentence of its weighty preamble is often quoted: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The researchers do not know who actually made the copy or how the Sussex Declaration arrived in England. They do know that it was deposited at the West Sussex Records Office in 1956, along with a few hundred other documents, by a law firm that had handled the affairs of the Duke of Richmond.
And there the centuries-old document remained for nearly six more decades before Sneff and Allen rediscovered it.