One of only two parchment copies of America’s Declaration of Independence has been discovered in a record office in West Sussex, filed away without fanfare for half a century.
Researchers from Harvard University were shocked to unearth the manuscript while compiling a database of later reproductions of the declaration. The only other parchment copy is kept in the National Archives in Washington DC.
According to the researchers, staff at the West Sussex Record Office, in Chichester, had not taken a particular interest in the copy, which was produced ten years after the declaration and signed by the original signatories, before the team from Harvard got in touch. They are now said to be “working on a valuation”.
It was news to them to discover what a special document this was
Danielle Allen, Harvard University
Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor, said the manuscript had been kept “folded up” until the university contacted the office.
“They had not dated it and they did not know what they had,” she told The Telegraph. “There are lots of later reproductions floating around. The assumption was probably there are lots of copies so this one didn’t stand out. It was news to them to discover what a special document this was.”
Prof Allen said it was “super surprising” to discover such a “very precious item” tucked away in a local record office. “We want to celebrate them for having preserved it for the last 50 years,” she added.
So proud to share most exciting research discovery of my life: A New Parchment Declaration of Independence Surfaces. https://t.co/OQ0hQdk1sk— Danielle Allen (@dsallentess) April 21, 2017
The researchers stumbled across the manuscript while using British Library software to compile a list of every copy of the declaration kept in Britain.
They are now trying to work out how it came to be in this corner of England. According to staff at the records office, it was handed into them in 1956 by a local man, who apparently worked for a law firm representing the Dukes of Richmond.
One of the dukes was known as the “radical duke” for his support for the American colonists’ rebellion, suggesting he may have originally brought the manuscript to Britain.
“He was the most ardent supporter of the Americans during the revolution,” said Prof Allen.
The record office is now working with the university as well as historians at the British Library and the American Library of Congress to carry out further tests on the manuscript.
A second Harvard researcher, Emily Sneff, was left to reflect on the improbability of their discovery. “We certainly weren’t looking for a copy of the declaration in West Sussex,” she said.