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August 2, 2016 by Scott Bomboy Share:EmailIn recent days, there’s been a big demand for small printed “pocket constitutions” as part of an ongoing debate in the presidential race. If you missed it, a pocket constitution made an appearance in a Democratic National Convention speech made by Khizr Khan that criticized Republican nominee Donald Trump. In full disclosure, the National Constitution Center is among the purveyors of pocket constitutions. And pocket constitutions often make an appearance at our live Town Hall events, either in the hands of Jeffrey Rosen, our president and CEO as debate moderator, or in the hands of our Town Hall guests as they make a constitutional point, or need a quick refresher on the exact words in a constitutional provision. Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio made a resolution for the printing of a pocket-sized edition of the Constitution, with 64,000 copies going to the House and Senate.  The current House resolution from 2015 authorized the printing of about 285,000 copies for Congress to use and distribute. The 1965 edition may be the first reference to pocket constitutions printed by the federal government, but they weren’t the first pocket constitutions. In 1938, former presidential candidate Al Smith was cited as an advocate of the vest-pocket constitution. And in a grandiose plan, former Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1989 asked Congress to use its free-mailing privileges to send pocket constitutions to 100 million Americans, with private companies paying the printing costs. Pocket constitutions have also been used by props or to make points long before their recent popularity with politicians.

Strom Thurmond was known for giving pocket constitutions to Supreme Court nominees, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg thanked Thurmond for her version during her confirmation hearings.
If there is a popular time for pocket constitution usage, it’s mid-September, when millions of Americans, and especially school children, celebrate Constitution Week, and Constitution Day on September 17th.
In 2014, Justice Anthony Kennedy appeared at the National Constitution Center on Constitution Day and spoke with students from two local high schools.
Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation and Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice explore recent court rulings on the right to vote in America. The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia inspires active citizenship as the only place where people across America and around the world can come together to learn about, debate, and celebrate the greatest vision of human freedom in history, the U.S.
We decided to look into the history of pocket constitutions and their symbolic and practical meaning. Since then, while Khan and Trump have exchanged comments as part of the campaign debate process, interest has picked up in pocket constitutions. Visitors to the Center get a free foldable version when they are admitted to our building; we also sell them at our gift store and on our website. Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union is offering a free version with a special price code.

In 2015, Slate magazine made an attempt to look at the pocket constitution’s origins, which it traced back to a 1965 federal initiative. Alexander described a group of radicals who confronted New York police during a parade by showing them “hip-pocket” constitutions to protest the lack of warrants during police searches. Sam Ervin, Robert Byrd, and Dennis Kucinich showed off their pocket constitutions during the Watergate hearings, the Supreme Court line-item veto decision, and a presidential primary debate, respectively. As part of his discussion, Kennedy asked the students to pull out their pocket constitutions to understand the differences between the Constitution’s first two articles.
Most others are very affordable, with various additional documents included, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. This is the 25th edition of the version authorized by the House, and it is often the one brandished by politicians seeking to make a point in public. And there are various free versions available on the Internet that can be downloaded, printed and assembled at home.

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