Another parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence discovered

Two Harvard researchers have unearthed a find of tremendous historical significance. While researching the Declaration for a project dedicated to finding the hundreds of copies of our founding document published in newspapers and elsewhere, the two scholars came across an entry in an online catalog from a small records office in Sussex County, England. That entry indicated that there was a copy of the Declaration of unknown origin that had been sitting in the archives since the 1950's.

Emily Sneff, a researcher at Harvard, and Danielle Allen, a professor at the university went to the small town of Chichester to examine the document. What they found excited them immediately. The copy was printed on parchment, was in excellent condition, and featured several distinct and important differences with the only other parchment copy of the Declaration, which is kept at the National Archives in Washington.

The copy probably belonged to the Duke of Richmond, one of the only members of the House of Lords to support the rebellion. But it may have been originally ordered printed by James Wilson, one of drafters of the Constitution and an original Supreme Court Justice. 

Boston Globe:

The parchment was likely made in New York or Philadelphia. The researchers are still trying to determine the person who wrote the document and who paid for the foundational document of the United States to be copied.

The signatories on the Sussex version of the document are not broken down by state, something that distinguished it from the Declaration in the National Archives, the researchers said.

In an academic paper, the researchers say the document probably was commissioned by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who later helped draft the Constitution and was among the original justices appointed to the Supreme Court.

“The team hypothesizes that this detail supported efforts, made by Wilson and his allies during the Constitutional Convention and ratification process, to argue that the authority of the Declaration rested on a unitary national people, and not on a federation of states,’’ the researchers wrote in the statement.

The team, working with British officials, is working to carefully test the document in a way that will not damage the parchment.

According to the National Archives, the Massachusetts Historical Commission holds one of 26 copies of the Declaration of Independence prepared by John Dunlap, the printer for the Congressional Congress, after its signing on July 4, 1776.

The New York Times reports on one the most significant difference found on the newly discovered document:

Some details of the text suggest that whoever created it had had access to congressional records, including the 1776 parchment. But it deviated from that parchment — along with every known 18th-century version of the Declaration — in one striking respect: the ordering of the 56 signatures.

All known 18th-century iterations, Ms. Allen said, show the signatures grouped by state, with some printers even adding state labels. But here they were all jumbled. “I just kept staring at it,” she said. “There was no discernible order.”

But then she labeled each name with the number of the column it appeared in on the 1776 parchment, and noticed that they alternated in a clear pattern — a pattern, she and Ms. Sneff argue, created with help from a well-known 18th-century cipher.

That random order, Ms. Allen and Ms. Sneff argue, was meant to send a political message: The signers pledged “to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” as the last line puts it, as individuals, not as representatives of states. And that message, they argue, points to Wilson.

Who would have seen this copy during the debates over the Constitution? If it is meant as a political message, it wouldn't do any good unless it was widely viewed. That would seem to me to be one of the next steps in determining the provenance of the document; what was it used for and who used it?

No matter who published it or why, this is a find of tremendous importance. Imagine working in that little records office in an out of the way corner of England and not having a clue that just a few feet away was a document of such significance.

I sincerely hope the Delcaration Project sends the document on tour around the country to be displayed at appropriate venues. There is no better time to remind us of our founding document than today, when so many of its principles have been trampled underfoot by those who sneer at the near miraculous story of our founding.

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