Why Presidents Use So Many Pens to Sign Bills Into Law

Tradition Dates Back to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Trump's Bill Signing Pens
President Donald Trump hands out one of his gold-engraved pens after signing legislation in 2017. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Presidents often use several pens to sign a bill into law, a tradition dates back nearly a century and continues to this day. President Donald Trump, for example, used several bill signing pens on his first day in office when he put his signature on his first executive order, instructing federal agencies to uphold the Affordable Care Act while also working to "minimize the unwarranted economic and regulatory burdens" on American citizens and companies.

Trump used so many pens and handed them out as souvenirs on Jan. 20, 2017, the day he was sworn into office, that he joked to staff: “I think we’re going to need some more pens, by the way. ... The government is getting stingy, right?” Oddly enough, before Trump, President Barack Obama used nearly two dozen pens to sign that same legislation into law in 2010.

That's a lot of pens.

Unlike his predecessor, Trump uses gold-plated pens from A.T. Cross Co. based in Rhode Island. The company's suggested retail price for the pens is $115 apiece.

The practice of using several pens isn't universal, however. Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, never used more than one pen to sign a bill into law.


The first president to use more than one pen to sign a bill into law was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served in the White House from March 1933 until April 1945.

According to Bradley H. Patterson's To Serve the President: Continuity and Innovation in the White House Staff, the president used several pens to sign bills of "high public interest" during signing ceremonies in the Oval Office.

Most presidents now use multiple pens to sign those bills into law.

So what did the president do with all those pens? He gave them away, most of the time.

Presidents "gave the pens as commemorative souvenirs to members of Congress or other dignitaries who had been active in getting the legislation passed.

 Each pen was presented in a special box bearing the presidential seal and the name of the president who did the signing," Patterson writes.

Valuable Souvenirs

Jim Kratsas of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum told National Public Radio in 2010 that presidents have been using multiple pens so they can distribute them to lawmakers and others who were instrumental in shepherding the legislation through Congress at least since President Harry Truman was in office.

As Time magazine put it: "The more pens a President uses, the more thank-you gifts he can offer to those who helped create that piece of history."

The pens used by presidents to sign important pieces of legislation are considered valuable and have shown up for sale in some cases. One pen showed up for sale on the Internet for $500.


Most modern presidents use more than one pen to sign landmark legislation into law. 

President Bill Clinton used four pens to sign the Line-Item Veto. He gave the pens to former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, according to an account of the signing by Time magazine.

Obama used 22 pens to sign health care reform legislation into law in March 2010. He used a different pen for each letter or half letter of his name.

"This is gonna take a little while," Obama said.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, it took Obama 1 minute and 35 seconds to sign the bill using those 22 pens.

Most Pens

President Lyndon Johnson used 72 pens when he signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Murse, Tom. "Why Presidents Use So Many Pens to Sign Bills Into Law." ThoughtCo, Oct. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/why-presidents-use-so-many-pens-3368115. Murse, Tom. (2017, October 24). Why Presidents Use So Many Pens to Sign Bills Into Law. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-presidents-use-so-many-pens-3368115 Murse, Tom. "Why Presidents Use So Many Pens to Sign Bills Into Law." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-presidents-use-so-many-pens-3368115 (accessed March 23, 2018).