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Found: A Second Parchment Copy of the Declaration of Independence

Likely commissioned in the 1780s by James Wilson, the handwritten copy’s signatory order appears to emphasize national unity

The second parchment Declaration of Independence (West Sussex Record Office Add Mss 8981)
smithsonian.com

Until recently, it was thought that the only handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence written on parchment was the one protected from Nicolas Cage by a multi-million dollar nuclear-proof vault at the National Archives. But as it turns out, there's a second handwritten copy, located of all places, in the West Sussex records office in Chichester, England.

A new paper presented during a conference hosted at Yale on Friday put forward research that indicates the newly discovered manuscript was likely commissioned in the 1780s by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a lawyer and fervent nationalist who signed both the Declaration and later the Constitution, reports Peter Reuell at The Harvard Gazette.

Harvard University researchers Emily Sneff and Danielle Allen first came across the manuscript in 2015, Amy B Wang at The Washington Post reports. They were combing the holdings of records offices in the United Kingdom when they saw a listing for a “Manuscript copy, on parchment, of the Declaration in Congress of the thirteen United States of America."

While they’d come across many such entries that weren’t more than 19th-century reproductions of the Declaration, the fact that it was listed as a manuscript piqued their interest. So they sent a request for more information to Chichester.

The researchers were stunned when they received a disc with images of the parchment. “When I looked at it closely, I started to see details, like names that weren’t in the right order — John Hancock isn’t listed first, there’s a mark at the top that looks like an erasure, the text has very little punctuation in it — and it’s in a handwriting I hadn’t seen before,” Sneff tells Reuell. “As those details started adding up, I brought it to Danielle’s attention, and we realized this was different from any other copy we had seen.”

The document, however, is not a twin of the one in the National Archives. Jennifer Schuessler at The New York Times reports that the 1780s were an iffy time in American history, known by historians as “America’s Critical Period.” The country was in debt in the midst of a recession and The Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first constitution, led to a very weak federal government. Shay’s Rebellion against taxation also rattled nerves.

Wilson was a supporter of a new Constitution and a stronger national government with a right to tax the people. In fact, the researchers believe one reason the names on the new document are in a different order, rather than state by state like on the National Archives copy, was an attempt by Wilson to show that the signers were part of one nation, not their separate states. 

William Ewald, a legal historian at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, who is currently working on a biography of James Wilson, tells Schuessler that he finds the idea plausible. And even if it wasn’t Wilson who commissioned the work, the find is still incredible. After the Declaration was written, there were many different copies made in newspapers and as paper broadsides. But something written on parchment, made from animal hide and used for legal documents, is very rare.

So how did the parchment make its way to on out-of-the-way corner of England? Wang reports it’s also possible the parchment belonged to or came into the possession of the Duke of Richmond, a supporter of American Independence. Records indicate that the parchment was handed over to the West Sussex Records Office in 1956 as part of document deposit by the law firm that handled the affairs of the Duke and his descendants.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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