The Sussex declaration

The United States of America declared independence from the British Empire on July 4 1776. Only two parchment manuscripts of The Declaration of Independence remain.

One is housed in the National Archives in Washington DC and the other had lain relatively unknown in the archives at West Sussex County Council in Chichester.

The 24-by-30½-inch Sussex document is one of just two known roughly contemporary manuscripts of the Declaration of Independence on parchment. The other is the engrossed one signed by the delegates to Continental Congress, held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The Sussex Declaration. West Sussex Record Office

A copy of the American Declaration of Independence found in Chichester has been verified as one of only two ceremonial parchment copies in the world. The rare parchment was tracked down by Harvard academics last year at the West Sussex Records Office, where it had been kept neatly folded in the archive for 50 years.

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: “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.” The discoveries are published by Harvard academics Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff in their paper, “The Sussex Declaration,” in the Proceedings of the Bibliographic Society of America.

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.

Named ‘The Sussex Declaration’, the manuscript is only the second known parchment version of the declaration in existence alongside the Matlack D Harvard researchers Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff have said the manuscript is American and was most likely produced in New York or Philadelphia.

For more information see USA Declaration of Independence