When a tiny records office in southern England claims to have a copy of the Declaration of Independence, there is only one thing to do; investigate!
That’s exactly what two Harvard University researchers did. And their trip was definitely worth it.
Professor Danielle Allen and researcher Emily Sneff announced they had found a parchment copy of the declaration, only the second parchment manuscript copy known to exist besides the one kept in the National Archives in Washington DC.
The two presented their findings on the document, which they call “The Sussex Declaration”, at Yale University conference.
They have also published the initial research online.
Sneff first got a clue about the document in 2015 while compiling records for the university database.
“I was just looking for copies of the Declaration of Independence in British archives,” Sneff said in an interview.
But when she got to the West Sussex record, she noticed something different. The record mentioned parchment. The material suggested that the document was made for a special occasion and therefore not a simple broadside copy.
“I reached out to them a bit skeptically. The description was a little vague but once we saw an image and talked to a conservator we started to get excited.”
Before Sneff asked about it, British officials had never taken a close look at the document. All they knew was they had received it in 1956 from a local man who worked with a law firm that represented the dukes of Richmond.
“The closer we looked at it there were just things that made it a clearly unique and mysterious document.”
Allen and Sneff first tried analyzing handwriting, spelling errors, parchment styles and preparation to see if they could pinpoint when and where the document was made.
From these observations, they concluded it dated back to the 1780s. They believe it was made in America, probably in New York or Philadelphia.
Their next question would prove to be the ultimate test; who was the man behind the parchment?
For both Allen and Sneff, the leading candidate was James Wilson. He was a Pennsylvania delegate to the continental congress, one of six men to sign both the declaration and constitution, and, later, one of the original supreme court justices.
The researchers argued that Wilson, a man who was very vocal in his support for a popularly-elected president and separation of powers, played a more influential role in American history than most historians have recognized.
Sneff said the clue that lead them to Wilson was a stark anomaly on the manuscript compared to its counterpart in Washington DC and other copies: “The names of the signers are all scrambled.”
Unlike previously known copies of the declaration, which have signatures grouped by states, the Sussex copy has its signatures in a patterned jumble. Sneff and Allen hypothesize that the appearance of randomness was deliberate and symbolic, part of a nationalist argument that the United States was founded by citizens, each created equal, and not by a looser confederation of states.
Wilson drew the researchers’ attention, Sneff said, because of he repeatedly “invoked the declaration but with the understanding that the declaration was signed by one community, one group of individuals, that they were not enumerated by states.”
Michael Meranze, a professor of the revolutionary era at the University of California Los Angeles, called the evidence behind the manuscript’s 1780s American origin “very persuasive”, and the Wilson hypothesis “plausible” if uncertain.
“There was a huge debate over the constitution, about whether it was a compact of states or of the people,” he said. “Wilson was very much in favor of a nation that claimed its direct roots on popular sovereignty, even if he was simultaneously an elitist in many ways.”
Meranze warned though, that while he found the hypothesis on the signature convincing, there was not enough evidence to really nail it into place as fact.
“We tend to forget these documents were contested and put to different uses, and not simply monuments. It’s a fascinating discovery,” he said.
Sneff is interested to find out how the document made its way to England. She is hoping to gain access to the papers of the dukes of Richmond. She believes she will be able to trace the documents path through them.