What does 'the Twelfth' mean in Article 7 of the US Constitution?



I first encountered the sentences below on p 121, The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution (2004; but the newest edition dates at 2015) by Linda Monk. I rewrote the numerals using digits to ease reading.

[ Source: ] The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the 17th Day of September in the Year of our Lord 1787 and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names, [...]

The date is already stated as September 17 1787. So to what does the bolded refer?


Posted 2016-03-22T20:28:41.603

Reputation: 8 167

15Don't feel bad about this one. This is a very difficult sentence to parse even for a native English speaker. – Daniel – 2016-03-23T01:58:25.487

I feel like a comma after "America" (or maybe better after "1787") would have made this a lot clearer, but perhaps it wasn't stylistic or it is just a mistake. – Todd Wilcox – 2016-03-23T18:07:33.473

3I'm a native speaker (and fairly good at reading!) and I couldn't figure this out until I read the answers... :) – Numeri says Reinstate Monica – 2016-03-23T21:23:34.187

1@ToddWilcox Except that proper English grammar (which would certainly be used in an official document) does not allow a comma to separate only two items in a list. – Jed Schaaf – 2016-03-23T21:52:36.477

2@JedSchaaf Never heard of it. Commas after 'and' and 'twelfth' would be perfectly acceptable. – Marquis of Lorne – 2016-03-23T22:54:48.847

However commas are avoid in legal documents, for other reasons. – Marquis of Lorne – 2016-03-23T23:02:02.430

Non-native speaker, figured it out immediately. I suspect, as one of the comments below noted, that it's "the year of our lord" being too much of fixed phrase in modern English that slipped everyone up here. – January First-of-May – 2016-03-24T02:11:38.120



It stands for "The twelfth year from the Independence of the United States of America", since the Independence was in July 4th, 1776. September already counted as one more year, even though the Constitution was written in 1787.

To clarify, July 3rd, 1787 was the last day of the 11th year from the Independence.

It is a common feature among many countries' Constitutions, to state how many years ago happened an event that changed the civil status of the nation.

In Brazil, we have something like this:

Brasília, January 10th 2002; 181st of Independence and 114th of Republic.

Joao Arruda

Posted 2016-03-22T20:28:41.603

Reputation: 1 538


It may be worth noting that laws, proclamations, and other official documents of the U.S. government are dated from independence in the same way that their equivalents are dated according to the regnal year in the UK.

– choster – 2016-03-23T12:44:42.410

7It's worth re-emphasizing choster's comment: Prior to the widespread adoption of the AD/BC/CE/BCE system, regnal years (or the equivalent) were the way to mark official dates in most countries. – R.M. – 2016-03-23T14:43:57.277

A whole new decimal calendar was based on the French government change: of 1789.

– chux - Reinstate Monica – 2016-03-24T19:34:05.537

Regnal years are still used with Roman pontificates, and were only dropped in the United Kingdom within the present Queen's reign. – Andrew Leach – 2016-03-25T12:53:00.063

1@R.M.: Strictly speaking, AD and BC are formally a regnal-year system, although that's not usually how they're thought of these days (and CE/BCE put a new coat of paint on that without changing the epoch year chosen for the purpose). – Nathan Tuggy – 2016-05-11T00:30:03.597


Ditto Joao Arruda. One extra note: The language is a bit formal and archaic. But the construction is "the year (of our Lord = 1787) and (of the independence of the US = 12)". He's expressing the year in two different ways, with an "and" between them.


Posted 2016-03-22T20:28:41.603

Reputation: 51 729

8This explanation was essential for me (native English speaker) to be able to parse the sentence. I'm so used to "the year of our lord" as a set phrase, that this had not occurred to me at all. – Randy Orrison – 2016-03-23T08:23:52.183

3+1. I hope that others will upvote your answer (as I did), which I find as equally as beneficient and helpful as the others. So please accept my assurance that I accepted another answer not because of inequity between answers, but because SE presently allows only one acceptance and so I have used my acceptance to aid those with fewer reputation points. – AYX.CLDR – 2016-03-23T15:59:17.413

3It's confusing that they use a cardinal number for one of them and an ordinal number for the other, as it makes the parallelism less obvious. – Barmar – 2016-03-23T16:07:43.100

@Barmar I'm pretty sure those are both cardinal dates. The ordinal date for 1787 would be 11 (1787 - 1776 = 11). – Todd Wilcox – 2016-03-23T18:12:01.857


@ToddWilcox 12 is a cardinal number, 12th is an ordinal number. http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/28314/whats-the-difference-between-cardinal-and-ordinal-as-adjectives

– Barmar – 2016-03-23T18:37:33.530

1@Barmar Well the Wikipedia articles on ordinal versus Cardinal dating confused me then. Regardless of which name is which, they are both the same kind of date. It's the 1787th year of "our" lord (not my lord) and the 12th year of the USA. I guess they are both ordinal numbers then. But still the same kind. – Todd Wilcox – 2016-03-23T20:52:24.003

2@ToddWilcox My points is that they chose to use "12th" in one clause, but didn't use "1787th" in the other clause, even though that's what they meant. Thus, the parallelism was obscured by the use of different styles of wording. Had they said "Year of our Lord 1787 and of our independence 12", it would be more obvious what was meant. – Barmar – 2016-03-23T21:03:56.440

They are not the same kind of date, as the comments on Joao Arruda's answer attest. 1787 is the "standard" year and is written as a cardinal. 12(th) is the "regnal" year and so is written as an ordinal. – Jed Schaaf – 2016-03-23T22:02:33.203

@Barmar True, it's a faulty parallelism. Their English teacher should have taken a point off. I didn't notice until it was brought up here, but if that interferes with someone's understanding, okay, fair enough, but I don't think anyone is suggesting that this should lead us to conclude that it means something different from what we've discussed. – Jay – 2016-03-24T13:41:56.867

2@Jay I never intended to suggest that it's not what was meant, just that the style makes it unobvious. – Barmar – 2016-03-24T17:28:09.667

@barmar Didn't mean to imply you did. :-) – Jay – 2016-03-25T05:13:58.120