A Turning Point? The Declaration of Independence and the House of Lords

The latest Georgian Lords blog by Dr Charles Littleton, Senior Research Fellow of the Lords 1715-90 Section, considers the origins and use of the two manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence to be found in the United Kingdom.

The Declaration of Independence has iconic status in the United States of America as one of the country’s foundation documents and the 4th of July, the date in 1776 on which it was formally approved by the Continental Congress, is of course a national holiday in that country. Harvard University’s Declaration of Independence Resource Project, which is compiling a comprehensive list of all known contemporary copies of the Declaration dating from the 18th century, has recently reported an important discovery,  a manuscript version of the Declaration written on parchment dating from the 1780s. This was found not in some repository in the USA but in the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester. This ‘Sussex Declaration’, as the Harvard project has dubbed it, is one of only two manuscript copies of the Declaration still to be found in the United Kingdom. The other is in the Parliamentary Archives, and can be seen on Parliament’s own website.  There may even be a connection between these two rare ‘British’ versions of this very American document.

The copy of the Declaration of Independence was produced for the House of Lords as a result of the fierce partisan battles which convulsed Parliament at the time of the War of American Independence. The ministry led by Frederick North, Lord North, faced an opposition consisting of the group centred around Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd marquess of Rockingham, and their increasingly uncomfortable allies, the followers of William Pitt, earl of Chatham. On 2 December 1777, in the early days of the parliamentary session of 1777-8, Charles Lennox, 3rd duke of Richmond, a leading (if maverick) light among the Rockinghamites, successfully moved that a large number of papers concerning the war effort in the American colonies be laid before the House. These included the papers and correspondence of the two principal military commanders in America, Admiral Richard Howe, Viscount Howe in the Irish peerage (later created Viscount Howe in the British peerage in 1782 and then Earl Howe in 1788) and his brother General William Howe. Besides their military roles, these brothers had also been commissioned with powers to conduct peace negotiations with the colonists.

On 20 January 1778, 24 documents from the Howe brothers were laid before the House, including the copy of the Declaration of Independence. This had been copied from a version of the Declaration, perhaps one of the printed ‘Dunlap broadsides’, which had originally been sent as an enclosure in a letter, dated 11 August 1776, from the commissioners to the secretary of state for the American department, Lord George Germain. Throughout February and March the House of Lords saw a large number of acrimonious debates on the state of the American war, when the lords present in the chamber convened themselves over successive days into a ‘Committee of the Whole House’. Unlike in regular debates, when the House sat as a Committee of the Whole lords could speak more than once, which could often lead to personal spats between opposing peers and long-winded attacks on individual ministers. One peer in particular took advantage of this procedural rule– the voluble duke of Richmond.

On 5 March Richmond argued in a Committee of the Whole in favour of a bill to enable the king to appoint commissioners to treat with the American colonists. Perhaps using the copy that had been laid before the House that January, Richmond:

read the declaration of American independence by the Congress; and after commenting on it paragraph by paragraph, appealed to ministers, whether they meant to concede the several points therein set forth, or subscribe to the general assertions therein contained? This declaration asserted, that the King was a tyrant; complained that troops had been sent and quartered among them without their consent; that the admiralty courts were a grievance; that acts suspending those of their respective assemblies had been passed in the British Parliament; that the King having acted tyrannically, they had justly withdrawn themselves from his allegiance; that the judges enjoying their offices during pleasure, were thereby rendered dependant on the crown, &c. …. After condemning that part of the Declaration, which branded the King as a tyrant, for whose virtues, he said, he entertained the highest opinion, his Grace proceeded to shew the reasons why so indecent and disrespectful a language was adopted by the Congress. ….. It was therefore the delusion and deceit of ministers, which the Congress in their declaration of independence, mistakenly imputed to the King. It was upon this ground that his Majesty was first dethroned from the dominion he held over their hearts and affections.

Richmond appears to have been convinced by the Lockean arguments found in the Declaration, as he reasoned that ‘in the present instance, as soon as the king made war upon the whole body of his subjects in America, they began to reason like the Whigs in England [i.e. during the Glorious Revolution of 1688]. They said, though unjustly, that he was a tyrant; that he had deserted the government, and forfeited his dominion over them as sovereign, and that of course they were at liberty to institute another in its stead’. Richmond’s opinion was also swayed by the seemingly hopeless military situation in the colonies, exacerbated by the humiliating surrender at Saratoga in October 1777 and the entry of France into the conflict, allied with the colonists, from February 1778. He concluded that ‘if his advice were taken, sooner than hazard a farther continuance of the war, he would recommend to declare America independent, because he feared we must consent to it at last’. [John  Almon, The Parliamentary Register, vol. 10 (1778), pp.  277-280]

This was a turning point, for now Rockingham Whigs like Richmond could envisage an independent America and even pressed for it. This stance however split the opposition. Chathamites such as William Petty, 2nd earl of Shelburne, stated forthrightly that he ‘would never consent that America should be independent’. [Almon, Parliamentary Register, vol. 10, p. 287] On 7 April Chatham himself, who had been so involved in keeping the North American colonies British during the Seven Years’ War, came to the House specifically to speak against Richmond’s later motion, made on 23 March, for the removal of British troops from America. Rising to rebut Richmond’s reply to his initial speech, he was suddenly seized by a fit, was rendered speechless and collapsed. In the resulting pandemonium, an event which merited a large historical painting by the Boston-born artist John Singleton Copley (which contains within it individual portraits of 55 members of the upper house), Chatham was carried out of the House by his peers. He died a few weeks later on 11 May 1778, ending one of the most significant political careers in 18th-century British, and indeed imperial, history.

The recently-discovered ‘Sussex Declaration’, the parchment manuscript copy of the Declaration, was found in the West Sussex Record Office, among papers that were deposited there in the nineteenth century by solicitors for the Lennox family, whose  residence is still Goodwood House in West Sussex. It appears highly likely that the duke of Richmond, the so-called ‘radical duke’, the most outspoken member of the House of Lords for the cause of the American colonists, is the link between these two rare manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence still found on British soil.


Additional Reading:

Olson, Alison,  The Radical Duke: The Career and Correspondence of Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond (Oxford University Press, 1961)


Georgian lords 2

One thought on “A Turning Point? The Declaration of Independence and the House of Lords

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s