“There is only one copy of the engrossed and signed Declaration of Independence, in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.,” Harvard University’s website explains. “This copy was produced and signed several weeks after the Declaration of Independence was first published.”
John Dunlap, the printer of the first copies of one of the most famous documents in human history, did produce 200 other copies of the original, however – and only 26 of them were thought to exist today. Now, in a stunning reveal, it appears that a small archive in Sussex, England, has got a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence all to itself.
Containing all the signatures of the original, this copy – the 27th – is actually far more significant than the other copies. These were all printed copies, but the so-called Sussex Declaration is a handwritten parchment copy, just like the original. It’s also the same size as the Declaration kept within the US National Archives, and dating evidence suggests it was made shortly after the original was forged.
The Sussex Declaration. West Sussex Record Office Add Mss 8981
The fact that the UK seems to have the document most similar to the original is somewhat ironic – after all, the entire function of the document was to signal the secession of the thirteen American colonies from the rule of the Kingdom of Great Britain.
The Sussex Declaration was found by two Harvard researchers, who were simply looking through the archives to find ordinary copies of the original. They quickly realized that the handwritten parchment production of this particular and previously unnoticed version, held within Chichester's West Sussex Record Office, suggested it was designed for a special occasion.
“[It is] 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 note in a statement. “The parchment is, however, American and is most likely to have been produced in New York or Philadelphia.”
This oft-misinterpreted painting by John Trumbull depicts the drafting committee presenting its work to Congress. J. Trumbell/Public Domain
Presenting their work at a conference at Yale this month, the pair said that the date, location, typography and fashioning of the Sussex Declaration suggests that it was commissioned by James Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and one of the signatories of the Declaration. He was also one of the six original justices appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington.
The curious placement of the signatures on the Sussex Declaration led the team to this conclusion. Unlike every other copy, the signatures here are not grouped by states. Instead, they appear randomly, with no discernible pattern.
Wilson was a proponent of the nationalistic argument that the US wasn’t primarily a collection of individual states, but a collection of equal citizens – e pluribus unum, effectively. Wilson’s copy of the Declaration, then, would likely have jumbled up signatures to demonstrate that ideal.
The randomly positioned signatures on the Sussex Declaration. West Sussex Record Office Add Mss 8981
The discovery was made in 2015, but only after careful analysis was it revealed to the public in 2017 – and it could not have been a more pertinent year.
The text of the Sussex Declaration, save for a few punctuation changes, is precisely the same as the original. Both list the grievances committed by King George III, and one particular line stands out: “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
This refers to the dissemination and discussion of the unbiased truth of the matter. Back then, this referred to the actions of the King, but in the age of Alternative Facts, this line rings true more than ever.