Harvard University reports that Emily Sneff, a researcher with the Declaration Resources Project, stumbled across a listing for a parchment manuscript copy of the Declaration in West Sussex, England.
Although she didn’t think much of it at the time, that short description would set Sneff and Harvard’s Danielle Allen on a two-year journey into American history.
“The versions that people would have seen in July and August 1776 were broadsides and newspapers, starting with John Dunlap’s broadsides, which was printed on the night of July 4,” Sneff said. “Those copies would have made their way across to England as well — there are Dunlap broadsides in their National Archives.”
But it wasn’t until approximately a decade later that the Sussex Declaration was produced, amid a tumultuous period for the new nation.
“Victory was not sweet,” Allen said. “There was financial disaster, the Articles of Confederation were not working … so the 1780s were a period of great instability, despite victory. And this parchment belongs to that decade.”
Among the chief political debates of the era, Allen said, was whether the new nation had been founded on the basis of the people’s authority or the authority of the states. By reordering the names of the signers, perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the parchment, the Sussex Declaration comes down squarely on one side of the argument.
On most documents of the era, Allen said, the protocol was for members of each state delegation to sign together, with signatures typically running either down the page or from left to right, with the names of the states labeling each group. An exception was made for a small number of particularly important documents — including the Declaration, which was signed from right to left, and which omitted the names of the states, though the names were still grouped by state.
“But the Sussex Declaration scrambles the names so they are no longer grouped by state,” Allen said. “It is the only version of the Declaration that does that, with the exception of an engraving from 1836 that derives from it. This is really a symbolic way of saying we are all one people, or ‘one community,’ to quote James Wilson.”