Harvard researchers have unearthed one of the only two parchment copies of the US Declaration of Independence dating back to the 18th century.
Researchers stumbled upon the listing in August, 2015 in a records office in Chichester, south of England.
The US Declaration of Independence is a statement adopted by the Second Continental Congress meeting at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, which announced that the thirteen American colonies, then at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain, regarded themselves as newly independent sovereign states, and no longer under the British rule.
The only other version of the Declaration, a signed copy that is popularly regarded as the official document, is displayed at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
“I had found vague descriptions of other copies of the Declaration that turned out to be 19th century reproductions of the signed parchment in the National Archives, so that was what I was expecting,” said Emily Sneff, a researcher with the Declaration Resources Project at from Harvard University in the US.
“What struck me as significant was that it said manuscript on parchment,” Sneff said. “When I looked at it closely, I started to see details, like names that were not in the right order - John Hancock is not listed first, there is a mark at the top that looks like an erasure, the text has very little punctuation in it - and it is in a handwriting I had not seen before,” she said.
“As those details started adding up, we realised this was different from any other copy we had seen,” Sneff added.
“There are three key questions we want to answer,” said Danielle Allen of Harvard University. “One is: Can we date this parchment based on the material evidence? Second, who commissioned it and why, and third, how did it get to England?” Allen said.
Researchers are providing some answers to the mystery with two studies.
The first uses handwriting analysis, examination of the parchment preparation and styling, and spelling errors in the names of the signers to date the Sussex Declaration to the 1780s.
In the second study, researchers argue that the document was probably commissioned by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who later aided in drafting the Constitution and was among the original justices appointed to the Supreme Court.
The document is not simply a previously unknown piece of American history - it also affords a unique window into the political upheavals of the early Republic, researchers said.
In the immediate aftermath of the July 4, 1776, signing, Allen noted, there was a period of “breaking news” in which the Declaration was reproduced and printed in a variety of formats as the news spread through the colonies and eventually made its way across the Atlantic to England.