Chichester (England)- British experts will carry out tests to try to determine how a rare copy of the US Declaration of Independence found its way to an archive in southern England.
The handwritten manuscript, one of only two copies in the world, had been stored for more than 60 years in a strong-room among miles of documents in the West Sussex Record Office until its significance was revealed by Harvard University researchers, Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff.
Other copies and printed versions of the Declaration exist, but the only other ceremonial parchment is the Matlack Declaration, which dates back to 1776 and is kept behind glass at the National Archives in Washington.
Wendy Walker from the Chichester archive bureau told Reuters that this document in a way raises more questions than it answers.
“How did it get to Sussex, how did it end up here? Behind all those questions are the questions of when was it made, where was it made, and why was it made and who was it made for?” she said.
Measuring 60 by 76 cms, the Sussex Declaration, as the Harvard team have called it, is thought to date to the 1780s and most likely was written in New York or Philadelphia.
The researchers believe the parchment was originally owned by Charles Lennox, the third Duke of Richmond, who was known as the “radical Duke” because he supported the American colonists during the American Revolutionary War.
The Sussex version also differs from all other 18th century versions of the Declaration in that the list of signatories was not grouped by states. The researchers say that suggests it was commissioned by James Wilson, a Founding Father of the United States who supported a federal constitution.
Walker stated that the parchment would now go to the British Library for further scientific tests on the ink and the parchment, which has been nibbled at the edges by mice, to try to determine who actually owns it. She added that they will do hyperspectral imaging, which is looking at the document to see things which the naked eye can’t see, so there’ll be a whole series of tests and forensic examination being done on it over the summer, hopefully to give us a few more answers.
The Sussex office knew for years that the parchment had been held in its collection for decades but had not realized how rare it was.
Walker said it’s been known about for a while, it’s on our online catalogue and we published a book about it in 1976. “We knew we had it, we knew what it was, but we didn’t have the knowledge that they have brought to it in terms of the connection with the original,” she added.
It was among a mass of documents given to the record office by Leslie Holden, a lawyer who worked for a local firm called Rapers in 1956.
It is believed that a Rapers senior partner told Holden to dispose of documents belonging to the Dukes of Richmond, whose family home is the nearby Goodwood Estate. As an amateur historian, Holden handed them over to the record office, including the Declaration parchment.
“We know who the depositor was. What we’re trying to find out, I think, is the history behind that, what happened before it came here,” Walker said.