Harvard University researchers confirm authenticity of the Sussex Declaration


Release date: 2 July 2018

Scientific testing of the parchment manuscript of the Declaration of Independence housed in the West Sussex Record Office supports the hypothesis of researchers from Harvard University, who propose that the document was produced in the 1780s.

The Sussex Declaration, as it has become known, 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.

Detailed scientific tests have been carried out and the results analysed by conservation scientists at the British Library, Library of Congress and the University of York including multi-spectral imaging, X-ray fluorescence, and DNA testing. Imaging revealed a date beneath an erasure on the document. The date reads either “July 4, 178” or “July 4, 179”. It is impossible to say whether there was originally a fourth digit in the year. Analysis of the ink shows that this lettering together with the final lettering and corrections were all written in a relatively short window of time. X-ray fluorescence analysis showed that the parchment was hung up using iron nails at some point.

The findings come after collaborations between the Harvard researchers with archivists, conservators and scientists at the West Sussex Record Office, British Library, Library of Congress, and the University of York.

Louise Goldsmith, Leader of West Sussex County Council, said: “This is such terrific news about the Sussex Declaration. We have all been waiting to hear what the experts have been able to discover for us and now we know!

“Our Records Office holds many fascinating treasures – but this treasure of a document is very, very special indeed. So we very much welcome this interest in the West Sussex archives and the work of the Record Office, which acts as the custodian for thousands of documents with a West Sussex link stretching back to 780.

“It is hard to explain the huge sense of history when I was so privileged to view the document. It is an exquisite piece of history which must have been painstakingly written not under modern light but by daylight and candlelight using a quill and ink. Hard to imagine how long it took, I wonder what the scriber thought as he wrote away.”   

The parchment was 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 team is continuing to work on the question of when and how the parchment came to be in 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.”

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