Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names....
Two days before the end of the Constitutional Convention, just before the final vote on the completed document, three delegates voiced objections to the new Constitution. Edmund Randolph of Virginia (who had introduced the Virginia Plan) thought the Constitution was not sufficiently republican, and moved that there should be another convention to address amendments to be proposed by the states. George Mason, also of Virginia, seconded the motion, arguing that without significant changes the new government would end in either monarchy or a tyrannical aristocracy. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts feared the powers of Congress were too broad; he thought the best that could be done was to provide for a second general convention. When the two questions were put to a vote, the eleven states present (Rhode Island had not sent a delegation, and New York’s had left) all voted against a second convention and then all voted in favor of the final text of the Constitution. The document was then ordered engrossed, or formally written, in preparation for endorsement.
When the convention reconvened on September 17, after the final reading of the document, Benjamin Franklin delivered an address (read by James Wilson) strongly endorsing the Constitution despite any perceived imperfections. Hoping to gain the support of critics and create a sense of common accord, Franklin then proposed, and the Convention agreed, that the Constitution be signed by the delegates as individual witnesses of “the unanimous consent of the states present.”
Thus the signers subscribed their names “In witness” to what was “Done in Convention,” and, with the exception of George Washington, who signed first and separately (as president and deputy from Virginia), the names are grouped by state. As a result, the document suggests the unanimity of the Declaration of Independence: delegates did not sign “on the part and behalf of” particular states, as they had in the Articles of Confederation. The states are listed (as in Article I, Section 2, and the draft of the Preamble, as well as in the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation) in geographical order, from New Hampshire in the north to Georgia in the south.
In the end, Randolph, Mason, and Gerry did not sign the Constitution; as Madison wrote in his notes, they “declined to give it the sanction of their names.” The arrangement did allow Alexander Hamilton to sign as a witness for New York, even though the rest of his delegation had already departed.
At least sixty-five individuals had received appointments to the convention, fifty-five attended at various times over the course of the sessions, and thirty-nine delegates signed the final document. George Read of Delaware signed twice: once for himself, then again for John Dickinson (who had left due to illness, and had authorized Read to sign his name). Although he was not a delegate, William Jackson, the secretary of the convention, signed to attest, or authenticate, the delegates’ signatures.
Also of note is the method by which the Constitution is dated: “the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord” 1787, and “of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth.” Dating documents to “the Year of our Lord” had become more unusual; the Declaration of Independence, for instance, simply states “In Congress, July 4, 1776.” Dating important documents in American political history to the Declaration of Independence was at that point relatively frequent. The dual reference, which was used by the Continental Congress in the late 1770s and early 1780s on various documents and declarations, can be found in two other important national documents: the Articles of Confederation and the Northwest Ordinance (considered, along with the Declaration, to be the “organic documents” of the nation). The language here is not insignificant. The dates serve to place the document in the context of the Christian religious traditions of Western civilization. At the same time, the dates formally link the document to the regime principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution having been written in the twelfth year after July 1776. The usage stands in contrast to both the contemporary British tradition, in which documents were dated to the reign of the sitting monarch (see, for example, the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Petition of Right of 1628), and the French decision in 1793 to reject the Gregorian calendar altogether and begin measuring time starting with the French Revolution.
Akhil Amar suggests that attestations and signatures are not normally regarded as part of the substance of a legal document. Nonetheless, the Attestation Clause has traditionally been included in reprintings of the Constitution.