The Yale Law Journal

March 2010

The Significance of Signatures: Why the Framers Signed the Constitution and What They Meant by Doing So

Michael Coenen

119 Yale L.J. 966 (2010). 

The signing of the U.S. Constitution is traditionally understood as the closing act of the Constitutional Convention. This Note provides an alternative account, one that understands the Constitution’s signing as the opening act of the ratification campaign that followed in the Convention’s wake. To begin, the Note explains the signatures’ ambiguous form as the product of political maneuvering designed to win support for the Constitution during ratification. The Note then hypothesizes two ways in which the signatures may have helped to secure this support: (1) by highlighting pro-Constitution selling-points likely to resonate with the ratifying public; and (2) by limiting the ability of the signers to distance themselves from the Constitution once ratification battles had begun. Finally, the Note identifies a few respects in which this ratification-centered account of the Constitution’s signing may influence our modern-day understanding of the document.