Constitutional FAQ Answer #116 – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net

Constitutional FAQ Answer #116

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Q116. “I am wondering who actually was the first
to sign the Constitution and when was it signed?”

A. The answer to the second question can be found quite easily by checking the Constitution itself. The answer to the
first question is actually a little harder to determine. An image of the last
shows the signatures of the conventioneers, and though that of George
Washington is at the top, that does not mean that he signed first. He signed
his name as “President and deputy from Virginia,” so maybe he signed when the
others from Virginia signed. The signature of William Jackson, the secretary of
the convention, is also prominent. That of George Read is first in the left hand
column, and John Langdon is first in the right hand column. The point is,
looking at the document is not the best way to determine who signed first.

The best secondary source of information would be the Minutes taken by
James Madison. But Madison’s notes on this day, on this particular issue, are
scant: “The members then proceeded to sign the instrument.”

The next best source would be other papers or letters written by anyone at
the Convention. Unfortunately, I do not have access to great resources in this
area. I would call on anyone with such access to let me know if my final
conclusion is rendered incorrect by any such paper.

The last source of information is books about the Convention. There are
many, of which I have a few. After consulting with them, some merely parrot
Madison’s words, some note that the delegates signed in order of state, and one
notes that Washington signed first. The authors of these books that did not
state one way or the other are all correct, and the one that states that
Washington signed first is providing an opinion based on reasonable

Using some reasonable deductions of my own, I’ve concluded that Washington
signed first. The fact that his signature is at the top of the lists of names
is one particularly telling fact. The respect that the conventioneers had for
Washington as both a person and as the president of the convention is another
indication that he would have been asked or have been expected to sign first.
It is reasonable, then, to say with as much certainty as possible, that George
Washington signed the Constitution first.

Last Modified: 16 Aug 2010

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