Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The U.S. Constitution and "the Year of our Lord"

The United States Constitution does mention God.  In Article VII, the Constitution states:

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....

I am often asked about this reference when answering questions about my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

The phrase "Year of our Lord," which is the only reference to God in the United States Constitution, was, of course, a standard eighteenth-century way of referencing the date.  It reminds us that the Constitution was written in a different world than our own. Today we do not usually refer to the date this way.  In the eighteenth century they did.  The past is indeed a foreign country.

How did this reference to "the Year of our Lord" find its way into the Constitution?

We know that the phrase "Year of our Lord" was not included in the draft of the Constitution that was approved by the Convention.  On Monday, September 17, 1787, James Madison moved that

the Constitution be signed by the members and offered the following as a convenient form viz. "Done in Convention, by the unanimous consent of the States present the 17th of Sepr. & c.---In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names."

After some more discussion that day (unrelated to the "Year of our Lord" phrase) most of the members voted to approve the document.  The wording of the final clause that they approved was different from the wording that would eventually appear in the final Constitution.  The new wording included the phrase "Year of our Lord."

In case you want to research this for yourself, check out:

Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 Volume II, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911). pp. 643ff.

So, once again, how did this phrase make it into the draft we have today?  I don't know.  The phrase was not in the draft that the members of the Convention voted on and it may not have appeared on the draft that the framers signed.  Daniel Dreisbach, in a 1996 article in the Baylor Law Review (Vol. 48, p. 967) suggests that the reference to "The Year of our Lord" at the end of the Constitution "may have been merely a scrivener's touch."  (He also cites a 1991 doctoral dissertation from the University of Dallas: Archie P. Jones, "Christianity and the Constitution: The Intended Meaning of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, p.258, note 5).

The evidence available suggests that the phrase "Year of our Lord" was not part of the document approved by the members of the Constitutional Convention, but was probably added to the document sometime after the meeting.


Robert said...

Basically, they had to do it that way because years in England were often expressed in the year of the reign of such-and-such a monarch, and that clearly wouldn't do for the US Constitution:


Robert said...

Hmmm. That link doesn't seem to work. It's a google search for "year of the reign of King George" in quotation marks.

craig2 said...

I read the *Christian Commonwealth* article from Baylor Law Review. The scribe wrote it theory is baseless and examining the original document does not show any evidence that "Year of our Lord" was added later. The dating doesn't mean much imho, but The BLR article does however have an excellent discussion on two points: Sunday is observed at the Federal level in the Constitution and even more interesting is the significance of oaths which infer a supreme being and apparently were not considered a religious test. In fact the recognition of affirmations vs. oaths is an acknowledgement of the Quakers and their understanding of the Bible.

JoeT said...

Thanks for this very interesting post. One small point: I found the records online at http://tinyurl.com/3twdgyg
My reading has it that Franklin was the one who made the motion that the Constitution be signed and that the author of the words "Done in Convention .." was Gouverneur Morris. Yes?

David Ivester said...

Very interesting. Have you considered, though, the possibility that the "&c--" in the middle of Farrand's quotation of the proposed form of signing was intended to serve much the same function as an etc. or an ellipsis and that the actual form Franklin proposed included all of the additional verbiage, including the lord reference, later appearing on the signed version of the Constitution. I have not looked for original documents and such to try to sort this out. I have noted, though, that at least one historian understood Franklin to propose the entirety of the language ultimately appearing on the Constitution. (2 Francis Thorpe, Constitutional History of the United States (originally published 1901, reprinted 2008) p. 591.)