The National Constitution Center owns a rare, original copy of the first public printing of the Constitution. The original signed, handwritten Constitution is at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
On September 17, 1787, at what is now known as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Constitution was signed by 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Two days later, the document’s full text was printed in a newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser. The Constitutional Convention was conducted under an oath of secrecy, so this public printing represents the first time that Americans saw the Constitution.
Article VII of the Constitution made it clear that before the document could go into effect, it needed to be approved by at least nine of the 13 states in a series of ratification conventions. As James Madison explained in The Federalist No. 40, he and his fellow delegates had “proposed a Constitution which is to be of no more consequence than the paper on which it is written, unless it be stamped with the approbation of those to whom it is addressed.”
The first public printing illuminates the constitutional ideal of active citizenship. While the handwritten Constitution inspires awe of the Founding Fathers and their brilliance, the public printing reminds us that the Constitution can only thrive with the engagement of “We the People.”
There are only about 25 known copies of this printing in the world. Thanks to the generosity of the late Robert L. McNeil Jr., who donated his copy on September 11, 2001, the museum owns one of these rare original documents, which is displayed in an alcove adjacent to Signers’ Hall. Because of its rarity and age, this artifact must be taken off display to rest periodically, and a high-resolution facsimile is on display.