Many of you may have read about the ‘Sussex Declaration’ in the past few months. You may have heard about the record on the radio, you may have even seen it broadcast to millions on morning television! The story behind how this parchment copy of the US Declaration of Independence ended up in Chichester is still being looked in to, as researchers investigate its life before it was deposited in the Record Office in 1956. The Declaration is also being tested at the British Library to confirm its age and provenance, and there is a lot more work to be done to uncover the history of this intriguing document. However, what we do know is that the ‘discovery’ of the Sussex Declaration is causing quite a stir both sides of the pond!
To celebrate American Independence Day, the holiday that marks the signing of the original Declaration on July 4th 1776 which announced thirteen American colonies as independent sovereign states free from British rule, we will be posting a series of blogs focussing on the links between this turbulent period of US history and the county of Sussex.
Although we will be looking at the many and varied relationships with the signatories and events of the period – the first President of the United States, George Washington himself was of Sussex stock – it is WSRO’s copy of the Declaration of Independence that has really got people talking. The copy was brought to the public’s attention by an interview the New York Times conducted with Harvard academics Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff, from the Declaration Resources Project. The project sought to investigate and document copies of the Declaration circulated in the decades following its signing, and to ‘create innovative and informative resources about the Declaration of Independence’. The project located WSRO’s copy through the National Archives online catalogue, through which our own online catalogue can be searched. Although the record had been previously featured in ‘Roots of America’, an anthology of documents relating to American history in West Susses Record Office, published by former WSRO Archivist Kim Leslie, it had perhaps passed researchers by due to the lack of the word ‘independence’ in the title of the document, and thus catalogue entry. The description simply uses the title in the record itself, and states; ‘Manuscript copy, on parchment, of the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America, 4 July 1776’.
Following a visit to WSRO last summer, Professor Allen and researcher Emily Sneff published a paper on the ‘Sussex Declaration’, which was delivered at a Yale University conference in April. Investigating the significance of the ordering of the signatories, and its importance as a copy on parchment, second only to the original held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C, the paper invited media attention from both America and the UK alike. Quickly followed by articles in The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, and the Daily Mail, the New York Times article also led to articles from NBC News, ABC News, The National Post, Fox News, and CNN. Even the New Delhi Times was writing about us!
In the days following the news, American network CBS visited us in Chichester to film a segment reporting the ‘discovery’ on live breakfast television. Speaking to County Archivist Wendy Walker, and filming for a whole morning in the Record Office searchroom and strongrooms, a clip of the segment can be found on Youtube. Similar to much of the reporting on the Sussex Declaration, reporter Charlie D’Agata focussed on the potential link between the parchment and Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond (1735-1806). Lord Lieutenant of Sussex at the time the original Declaration was signed, and based at the Goodwood Estate just outside Chichester, the Duke was a well-known supporter of the colonists during the American War of Independence. This is only one possibility in the search for the provenance of the record, and explanation for its journey to and home in Chichester, with other ideas currently being explored. The document itself is also being looked at in detail, and will be sent to the British Library over the summer for further scientific tests which we hope will reveal more about the parchment, the ink and its origins.
International news agency Reuters also wrote about the Sussex Declaration, and once again interviewed County Archivist Wendy Walker for a more in-depth discussion of the Record Office’s role in the document’s new-found fame. The interest on social media also increased in the following days, and the WSRO Twitter saw a record number of mentions from both sides of the Atlantic.
Following the interest in the Record Office and our unique discovery, the response in the press and on social media allowed us to reach a whole new audience, and make links with American institutions and individuals alike. Although in the coming days we will explore further links West Sussex has with the United States, it is the significance of the Declaration that has captured the imaginations of our followers and supporters. We hope to report back once the on-going research and tests have enlightened us further, but for now, everyone at West Sussex Record Office would like to wish you a happy Independence Day!