The “Pocket Constitution” makes a comeback

pocket constitution
National Archives Pocket Constitution. (National Archives History Office)

As we celebrate the 229th birthday of the Constitution, the mini, pocket edition has made a comeback.

After Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, waved his pocket Constitution during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, sales have soared and pocket Constitutions are flying off the shelves.

I use my pocket Constitution all the time. In fact, I have at least three different editions printed by the National Archives over the years. One of them is old enough that it doesn’t even have the 27th amendment which was ratified in 1992.

GPO has been printing smaller, hand-held Constitutions in booklet form since before there was a National Archives. It’s unclear when they first became known as “pocket” Constitutions, but in 1965 Congress started printing what they called “pocked-sized” editions of the Constitution for distribution to its membership.

During the Watergate hearings, Senator Sam Ervin, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, would often brandish his copy for effect.

Senator Robert Byrd brandishing his Pocket Constitution at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo Courtesy of the Robert C. Byrd Center)

But Ervin’s long-time colleague, Senator Robert Byrd, is perhaps the most well-known pocket Constitution carrier. He had a copy of the U.S. Constitution with him at all times.

Like a referee giving a red card, he loved to whip it out and wave it over his head during his speeches on the Senate floor.

Byrd is also founder of the modern Constitution Day (although Constitution and Citizenship Day has long been celebrated). In 2004, he included a provision in an appropriations bill designating September 17 of each year as Constitution Day. It requires public schools and governmental offices to provide educational programs to promote a better understanding of the Constitution.

The National Archives has been distributing copies of the Constitution in various forms since we got the original document from the Library of Congress in 1952. Our pocket version simply contains accurate text of the document with amendments and ratification dates without the commentary or interpretation that has made its way into some versions printed for political purposes.

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Photograph of the first time the entire U.S. Constitution was exhibited in the National Archives Rotunda, September 17, 1970. (National Archives Identifier 3493276)

At perhaps its heyday during the 1987 Constitution’s Bicentennial, the National Archives published and sold tens of thousands of pocket Constitutions and gave just as many away during an 87-hour vigil. The vigil showed all four pages of the engrossed parchment—a tradition that started on Constitution Day 1970. Before 2003 only the first and signature page were on permanent display.

I spoke with Sandra Glasser, who used to run the Archives gift shop, and she said we always sold pocket Constitutions at least back to 1977. We sold them for $1.00 right up to the day we closed for the 2001–2003 renovation.

At one time we even had copies in Braille that were free upon request.

The National Archives still carries pocket Constitutions in our gift shop, although they are currently sold out because of the high demand, and we won’t get a new shipment until October. The official U.S. government version from GPO is normally sold for $1.50, but it’s also now on backorder.

September 17 is Constitution and Citizenship Day, which commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. Visit our website to learn about our public programs, family activities, and online resources related to the U.S. Constitution.

Or come to the National Archives in Washington, DC, to see all four pages of the Constitution on permanent display in our museum.  

4 thoughts on “The “Pocket Constitution” makes a comeback

  1. When we met our Congressman, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a few years back, he gave my 12-year-old daughter a pocket Constitution and a pocket Declaration of Independence. Her dad and I thought that was pretty cool; she, not so much.

  2. I bought a pocket Constitution and a pocket Declaration of Independence on my first visit to The National Archives 10 years ago. I use the Constitution all the time when tutoring students for American politics – its amazing how many have never seen it and many expect it to be a great weighty tome. Its a testament to James Madison’s skill that you can fit the whole constitution into your pocket!

  3. It would be great if you would lower the price on your constitutions. I bought them from a regular publisher for less than a dollar a copy recently, and here you are selling them for $3.34 a copy. You have your printers, employees and utilities paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, and you do not need to make a profit. Do the right thing.

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