From the first moment they saw it three years ago, Emily Sneff and Danielle Allen suspected that the Sussex Declaration would become a significant find as a late-18th-century copy of the Declaration of Independence. Now they have the evidence to back that up.
Working in collaboration with researchers at the West Sussex Record Office, the British Library, the Library of Congress, and the University of York, Sneff, the research manager for the Declaration Resources Project, and Allen, Harvard’s James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, completed a series of tests on the parchment document that revealed a date, either “July 4, 178” or “July 4, 179.”
Found just beneath a scraped erasure to the right of the document’s title, the date was uncovered using a number of high-tech analytical methods, including multispectral imaging, X-ray fluorescence (XRF) capture, and protein analysis (DNA testing).
The 24-by-30½-inch Sussex document is one of just two known roughly contemporary manuscripts of the Declaration of Independence on parchment. The other is the engrossed one signed by the delegates to Continental Congress, held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Unlike that document, the Sussex lists the signatories in the hand of a single clerk. There are other printed parchments of the declaration, and other handwritten versions of it. But these two are the only ceremonial parchment versions.
Though it is impossible to say whether there was originally a fourth digit in the year listed on the Sussex document, the finding supports Allen and Sneff’s hypothesis that the document was produced in the 1780s. The results also support their argument, laid out in a forthcoming paper in the Proceedings of the Bibliographic Society of America, that the clerk preparing it was inexperienced. Analysis revealed that the erased date was written along a slight downward slant, indicating the clerk made two errors in the calligraphy for the date, one with regard to the date itself, using the year of its production rather than the year in which the declaration was enacted, and the other in failing to maintain a horizontal line.