Many of our followers will recall the news last year of the ‘Sussex Declaration’, an early copy of the US Declaration of Independence, and the only other ceremonial copy of the Declaration known to exist besides the signed 1776 copy now displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Although the manuscript has been catalogued and stored here at West Sussex Record Office in Chichester since it was deposited in 1956, the significance of the copy was only investigated in the last 2 years, after two Harvard academics from the Declaration Resources Project located it via our entry on the National Archives catalogue. The media interest surrounding the Sussex Declaration was summed up in a previous blog post, and looks set to push WSRO into the limelight once again, with the confirmation of the Sussex Declaration’s authenticity as a contemporary parchment copy.
Following a year of non-invasive testing on the parchment manuscript of the Declaration of Independence housed at WSRO, Harvard researchers Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff, in collaboration with West Sussex Record Office, British Library, Library of Congress, and University of York, have concluded that the results support the hypothesis that the document was produced in the 1780s, and is the only other contemporary manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence on parchment apart from the signed copy at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., known as the Matlack Declaration. There are other printed parchment copies and other handwritten copies on paper but the Sussex Declaration, as it has become known, and the Matlack Declaration, are the only two ceremonial parchment manuscript copies.
Although at 24” x 30.5” the WSRO parchment is on the same ornamental scale as the Matlack Declaration, which was signed by the delegates to Continental Congress, in contrast, the Sussex Declaration lists the signatories written in the hand of a single clerk.
Conservation scientists at the British Library, Library of Congress, and the University of York conducted multi-spectral imaging, X-ray fluorescence (XRF) capture, and protein analysis (DNA testing). The imaging revealed a date beneath a scraped erasure to the right of the document’s title. Beneath the scraping, researchers found a partially inscribed date, reading either “July 4, 178” or “July 4, 179”.
The erased date was written along a slight downward slant, indicating that the clerk made two errors in the initial calligraphy for the date: he (or she) erred with regard to the date itself, using (presumably) the year of production rather than the year in which the Declaration was enacted, and also failed to maintain a horizontal line. Imaging revealed that the inked lines establishing horizontal margins for the parchment, and the lining of the parchment used by the clerk to keep the rest of the text properly aligned were added after this failed inscription was scraped off the parchment. There is congruency in the iron gall ink used throughout the document, indicating that the initial titling, the corrected titling, the body of the text, the list of signatories, and the corrections within the body of the text were written in a relatively short window of time; in other words, the corrections were made almost immediately.
These discoveries support the date of the 1780s for the Sussex Declaration proposed by Allen and Sneff in their paper, “The Sussex Declaration,” forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Bibliographic Society of America this fall. The findings also support their hypothesis that the clerk was inexperienced.
In addition, through XRF analysis, the researchers discovered high iron content in holes in the corner of the parchment, providing supporting evidence for the use of iron nails to hang the parchment at some point. The protein analysis, or DNA testing, revealed that the parchment was prepared from sheepskin, rather than more expensive calfskin. Full copies of the technical reports from the testing are available the Declaration Resources Project website.
Whilst the parchment is currently housed at the West Sussex Record Office, having been deposited in 1956, it 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 itself is, however, American and is most likely to have been produced in New York or Philadelphia. The team continues to work on the question of when and how the parchment moved to the UK.
Wendy Walker, West Sussex County Archivist, 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, the British Library and the University of York to find out more about the story that surrounds it.”
For Harvard Communications, please contact:
Communications Officer, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138
For West Sussex Record Office Communications, please contact:
Senior Press Officer, West Sussex County Council
Tel: +44 (0)33 022 25979