September 17 is Constitution Day commemorating the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787.
Fifty years ago, all four pages of the U.S. Constitution went on display at the National Archives for the first time.
When the National Archives first received the original Constitution from the Library of Congress in 1952, only two pages—the first and last page—were put on permanent display. The first page contains the Preamble and the beginning of Article I; the last page contains the end of Article IV, Articles V–VII, and the signatures of 39 delegates.
The exhibit, in what we then called the “Shrine,” looked remarkably similar to the display the Library of Congress used when it had the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Ours, however, also included an additional document: the Bill of Rights, which the National Archives received from the Department of State in 1938.
Back in 1951, while the documents were still at the Library of Congress, all pages of the Constitution were sealed in Helium-filled cases. They were transferred to the National Archives inside those cases the following year, along with the one-page Declaration of Independence.
Once at the National Archives, the Constitution’s remaining pages—the middle two pages— along with the transmittal page, were kept in the same vault that housed the other “Charters of Freedom.” These other pages did not leave the vault for daily display.
For Constitution Day in 1970, four pages of the original document—300 pounds total with the encasements—were displayed for public viewing for the first time. The document was placed in the center of the Rotunda on a persian rug–covered table and attended by a five-man honor guard representing all branches of the military.
It was Assistant Archivist for Educational Programs, and future Acting Archivist of the United States, Frank Burke’s idea. While watching visitors in the Rotunda, he noticed an elderly woman who was holding up the line at the Constitution so she could read the entire document. When she realized that only the first and last pages were displayed, she said it was her right to read it in its entirety. After they spoke, Burke decided to get all four pages on display, and on September 17, 1970, he arranged to have the entire document displayed for the one-day special event.
In subsequent years, the National Archives periodically brought out the additional pages for display for Constitution Day. When the National Archives reopened the Rotunda in 2003 after major renovations, all four pages of the Constitution were put on permanent display in new state-of-the-art cases.
Then in 2012, for the first time, the National Archives displayed the so-called “fifth page” of the Constitution—the Resolutions of Transmittal to the Continental Congress—for the 225th anniversary of the Constitution.
Visit the National Archives website for information on commemorating the day and learning more about the Constitution.