Researcher Emily Sneff and Harvard professor and political philosopher Danielle Allen have made a remarkable discovery—a rare parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence.
In 2015, Allen started the Declaration Resources Project when she realized how much was still unknown about one of the most important documents in the history of the United States. Sneff joined the project as a researcher, and was busy assembling a database of every known edition of the Declaration of Independence when she stumbled upon a one-line entry in a catalogue from a small records office in Chichester, England. The listing read, “Manuscript copy, on parchment, of the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America.”
At first, Sneff didn’t think much of the listing. Sneff and Allen explained to HISTORY, “There are so many 19th-century reproductions of the Declaration of Independence. When we first spotted it, that had to be the default expectation. We had no reason to expect a parchment copy, especially in this quality.”
But something about the description did give Sneff pause—the listing said “manuscript copy, on parchment.” At the time, there was only one known parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence, and it was residing in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Armed with a disc of photos, Sneff began to examine the British document, and soon realized there were significant differences between this document and the original one signed in 1776.
“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 handwriting I hadn’t seen before,” Sneff explained to the Harvard Gazette. She knew this was something different, and brought it to the attention of Allen.
Together, Allen and Sneff studied and analyzed the document (now known as the Sussex Declaration) for nearly two years. Using handwriting analysis, examining the parchment styling and preparation and even studying the marginal ruling and spelling errors in the list of signatories, they were able to authenticate the document and date it to the 1780s.
As Allen explained to HISTORY, “We examined the nail holes in the four corners of the document that had the shapes of preindustrial nails which were most likely used in the 18th century, which was an important and surprising detail. The fact that there were misspellings in the names—which could only come about if the transcriber was looking at a copy of the original document or a facsimile.” Facsimiles of the document, however, didn’t exist until the early 19th century. They furthered explained the dating process in a paper presented to Yale on Friday.
Dating the parchment to the 1780s places it in a significant and turbulent time for the fledging nation. “Victory was not sweet. There was financial disaster, the Articles of Confederation were not working…so the 1780s were a period of great instability, despite victory. And this parchment belongs to that decade,” Allen explained to the Gazette.
Part of the turmoil was defined by a big debate bubbling to the surface—was this great new nation founded on the people’s authority or the authority of the states? As Allen told HISTORY, this version of the Declaration was “as part of the fight between Federalists and Anti-Federalists about whether the new republic was founded on the authority of a single, united sovereign people or on the authority of thirteen separate state governments. It illuminates the politics of the 1780s in a flash.”
Protocol for most of America’s founding documents (like the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution) saw the signature of each state’s delegation grouped together, with the state’s name labeling the signatures. The Declaration of Independence is an exception—the signatures are still grouped by states, but the state names are omitted. The Sussex Declaration takes it one step further—the signatures are scrambled together, not grouped by state at all.
A big question Sneff and Allen hope to answer was who commissioned this and why? In their first paper, they suggested the document was most likely commissioned by James Wilson of Pennsylvania. Wilson was one of the Declaration’s signers and would go on to help draft the U.S. Constitution, become one of the original justices of the Supreme Court and became a prominent proponent of power being derived from the people—which might explain the randomized signatures.
Allen explains, “It is the only version of the Declaration that does that, with the exception of an engraving from 1836 that derives from it. This is really a symbolic way of saying we are all one people, or ‘one community’ to quote James Wilson.”
Besides the list of signatures, many other things make the Sussex Declaration stand out. Aside from the crease marks and nibbled edges (believed to be from a rodent), the document was found in relatively good condition. It is completely legible—unlike the Declaration at the National Archives that has severely faded over time. Also, it’s size is usual, made on a full piece of parchment measuring 24 by 30 inches. Most copies of the Declaration made soon after it was signed were printed in broadsides, books, newspapers and manuscripts, making it easier to spread the news throughout the colonies. This document’s size, however, indicates this was not its purpose.
Allen emphasized the role of historical digitization played in the team’s ability to unlock so many of the Sussex Declaration’s secrets. As she told HISTORY, “The fact that we have been able to get as far as we have is a miracle of modern science, it’s due to the digitization of the modern age. We had to scrutinize every newspaper, pamphlet and book from that time period. This is something that couldn’t have been done in the 1950s.” The team hopes additional work, such as hyper-spectral imaging and other non-invasive techniques, will allow them to read some of the scraped away text at the top of the document.
So, what’s next? Allen and Sneff hope to answer the next burning question—how did this parchment reach England? They have two hypotheses right now—that it traveled overseas in the 1780s or 90s (possibly by the Third Duke of Richmond (known as the “Radical Duke” for his support of the American colonists), or traveled to England at a later date.