I started the U.S. Constitution online site in 1995, as part of my effort to learn HTML and to discover more about the World Wide Web and what it could offer, and what I could offer. As a political science major in college, the Constitution itself has always interested me; when I was finished with my obligatory personal pages to test the waters, I found a digital copy of the Constitution and transferred the whole thing into a text file.
The next step was to determine how I wanted the Constitution to look online, and set up the HTML for each article and section to match that standard. It was a daunting task. The Constitution, while rather short as far as constitutions go, is still long for an HTML document. In those early days of the Web, my primary source for information about HTML was online documentation at NCSA. I preferred to run Mosaic on my machine, but at this point, I was a member of Prodigy and had to use their browser.
The copy of the Constitution at Prodigy stayed online for a few months, and garnered a few hits. These were the days before search engines were really big, and my main method for getting the word out was word of mouth. I told a few friends and relatives about the site, and they would visit from time to time to find out what this Web thing was all about. At this time, I also went through the Constitution and added links within the document itself, first with a table of contents, then with links to and from related sections, phrases, and amendments.
In 1996, I signed up with Sovernet, a local ISP, and transferred the Constitution from my Prodigy pages to my ISP. Search engines were just starting up, and I got my site listed whenever possible. Soon, the site was getting more and more hits, and I started to get questions from people about the history and content of the Constitution. Some of the questions asked about obsolete or obscure words, or asked for interpretation about certain amendments, clauses, or sections. My first step in addressing these questions was to create two new pages. The first was a glossary, dictionary entries really, to define words like "suffrage" and "pro tempore." The second was a notes page, where I offered my views on certain topics, like gun control, or where a term or concept could be better explained, such as treason.
Still the questions kept coming, and from all walks of life. I got questions from non-Americans curious about the Constitution; I got questions for from school children asking for help with homework; I got mail from adults arguing and agreeing with my commentaries. Though I usually decline to help directly with homework, I did find myself referring people to other sites quite a bit, showing them where they could find their own answers. This list of commonly referred sites became my Other Resources page, which includes links to copies of other constitutions throughout the world and the US.
In April 1997, I purchased my own little spot on the Web, Tatooine.com, hosted by pair Networks. The first priority on Tatooine was to get the Constitution pages up and running. At the same time, I decided it was time to put the Vermont Constitution online. There was no other copy online that I could find, and the one the state had was presented in the form of WordPerfect documents, about 120 of them. I took this information and converted it into a single file, and did to it what I had done to the U.S. Constitution.
I continued to get mail about the Constitution on a regular basis. I also noticed that I was getting several posts per month to my guest book asking questions about the Constitution. That led to the decision to put a BBS-style messaging system on my server to host a discussion about the Constitution in August 1997. Though slow to start up, the discussion board now has nearly 300 messages, though nearly half are from me to answer questions. As a part of the messaging, I promised to take the best questions and put them on a FAQ page of sorts, where people could see what questions others had had about the Constitution; everything from cleared up misconceptions to great debates about the constitutionality of certain laws and agencies.
The Spring and Summer of 1998 were busy times for the site. In April, 1998, the Constitution pages were transferred to its own domain name, USConstitution.net. By establishing itself in its own domain, the site has graduated to the upper echelon of Web sites, instantly gaining the prestige and high visibility that a root-level domain affords a site. The Constitution page itself hit 30,000 hits. In May, the site became associated with Amazon.com, offering a list of books for sale on their site that relate to the Constitution. The site was listed with Yahoo!, and voted a Hot Site by Starting Point users, and the hit count jumped as a result of both of these listings. Also in May, pages for the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, to provide context to the Constitution, were added to the site. And the FAQ page outgrew itself, and was split into several different pages: one for questions and several for answers (and the questions page was cloned into two additional pages, listing questions by subject and by section of the Constitution). In July, a printed version of this page appeared in WebBound magazine in a featured My Site article.
In September, with school and colleges returning to class, the site was listed on several "educational links" sites and syllabus sites, helping to increase the hit count to over 40,000. Other links on sites such as FindLaw and on the CourtTV site, and a mention on a CNN site helped raise the site's prestige even further. Also in September, I added a simple, home-grown search engine to help users locate messages and pages.
Through the fourth quarter of 1998, popularity of the site exploded, with 75,000 hits on the Constitution page alone. The Webmaster was interviewed for Savoy Magazine and more links to the site popped up. The impeachment hearings in the House led to the highest daily hit count the site had ever seen. Several new sections were developed, such as the Current Events Page and the Constitutional Topics Page. The number of messages in the message board began to have an effect on performance and a full 1000 messages were archived. The search engine was improved and the look of the site was redone (though since the basic thrust of the site has always been content and never flash, the changes were minimal despite the outward look).
In the first quarter of 1999, the site surpassed 100,000 hits on the Constitution page, and logged some of its busiest times ever as the impeachment of President Clinton went to the Senate trial. The trial also prompted another 1000 messages to be archived. The Topics page expanded even further, with a massive effort going into the Constitutional Convention Page. Because of popular demand, a page with images of the Constitution was added, and in honor of Martin Luther King day, a copy of the I Have a Dream Speech was added to the site. In conjunction with the Convention page, several precursor documents were added to the site, along with some Civil War era documents. All of these were finally collected on the Historical Documents Page. Some minor changes to the search engine and a new header graphic with an image map, for easier navigation, polished off the quarter.
There were not many changes to the site in the second quarter of 1999. The hit count continues to rise nicely, though there was a definitive slow-down in the number of hits and the number of messages on the message board after the conclusion of the impeachment proceedings. Because of the impending presidential race, it was appropriate to add a topic page concerning the Presidential Campaigns. A mention by radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh brought a ten-fold increase in hits in just one day, with a jump from about 2500 hits to 25000. The hit count quickly subsided, though, leaving a curious bump in the stats for a couple of weeks. There were a few changes to the search page, and I added MacroCode to the messaging system.
The last half of 1999 saw an increase in the number of pages on the site, as I tried to accommodate the needs of the users. By examining the logs from the search engine, I was able to refine the existing pages to make common search topics find information that was already here, and I added new pages to allow other search topics to actually find something. A List of the Presidents was added; Notes on the Amendments and the Ratification History of the Amendments were added; the number of Constitutional Topics grew to an even dozen; and a Quick Reference was added. Experimentation with Cascading Style Sheets started, and a major effort to make the bulk of the site's pages be 100% accessible to non-visual browsers was undertaken.
The year 2000 was an intense one, and the USConstitution.net site hit several new milestones. The first was a full quarter-million hits on the page on which the Constitution itself is published, followed by rather quickly by 300,000 hits and 350,000 hits. By the beginning of 2001, it was pushing up against 400,000. The reason? A doubling or even tripling of normal school-year hits in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Messages posted and hits generated jumped even higher than they had during the Clinton impeachment, with the Electoral College page becoming the second most popular page for a time. A page detailing the 2000 election in hindsight quickly shot to the top of the hit list, as did a new page detailing historical electoral college votes. I also added HTML versions of the ratification documents of the original 13 states and Vermont to the Other Historical Documents Page. The site enjoyed high rankings in many major search engines, as well as an ever-increasing number of listings in syllabi and government resource listings.
In 2001, several major changes happened at the site, though a lot of them were transparent to the casual user. The first was the splitting of the message board into the Q&A Board and the Debate Board. This change was requested by several regular users, and hopefully helps the casual user ask questions in a more structured setting. At about the same time, to protect regular users, User Profiles were added. Hits for the site continue to grow, averaging about 10,000 per day, with visitors being sent from Google, Ask Jeeves, Excite, MSN, and Yahoo. The range of topics on the site continued to grow, particularly with the Students Rights and Military Justice topics. Because of its size, the 2nd Amendment information was moved from the Notes Page to its own topic page.
2002 was another banner year for the site. The Webmaster appeared by phone on a C-SPAN program devoted to Constitution websites, which brought some nice publicity to the site. In addition, the average hits per day on a typical school day reached over 12,000. Many more pages were added, bringing the site total to over 150. Among the new topics added were Constitutional Rights and Responsibilities and Official Language. The Declaration of Sentiments was added, along with several FAQ items. It was possible, with the increase in traffic, that the Constitution Page would reach a significant milestone: 1 million hits. But it looks like the final 12,000 hits will come in the first quarter of 2003 instead. We look forward to sharing that milestone with the Internet community.
January 13, 2003: The Constitution Page hit 1 million page views today, marking a milestone for the site.
In 2003, the site remained relatively stable, though more messages continued to be added to the message boards and a few more pages were added to the site. The most significant change, perhaps, was the implementation of printer-based style sheets for those browsers that supported them. When viewing the site on screen, users saw several ads, a banner graphic, a list of links, and validation links on every page. With the printer style sheet, these extraneous elements were removed when the page is printed, and the font is changed for a more print-friendly result. A first attempt at something similar led to a "Printer Friendly" link on each message display page. The latest pages created included a Checks and Balances Topic Page, a page devoted to Various Types of Governments, an expansion of the Presidential Campaigns Page, and FAQ Answer Page 7. For Message Board users, the Posting Tips Page was a welcome addition.
By the end of 2003, some of the rough edges on the site's original message posting system were starting to show through. Kicking and screaming, I finally decided that it was time to bring things up to date - in the final quarter of 2003, the original WWB software was replaced with YaBB. Messages in the old system will always be available from the Message Boards Page, while the new software can be accessed from the YaBB Home Page.
2004, being an election year, brought a lot of debate - and the new YaBB-based message boards helped move that debate along. The pursuit of the Presidency by Governor Howard Dean afforded the opportunity to track the ins and outs of a real campaign on the Presidential Campaigns Topic Page. Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic Convention was moving and prompted a transcript of the speech to be posted to the site. In a contentious year, the speech was a bright light that is inspirational to all, regardless of party. A major project in 2004 was the splitting of the Constitution Page into separate one-section-per-file pages. The Table of Contents Page is the launching point for each page, and as other pages on the site are edited, current links within the large Constitution page are changed to the smaller section pages. Another major change came about as a result of the 2004 elections, too.
The months of October and November brought extremely large numbers of hits to the site - so many that the site exceeded it monthly bandwidth limits, and causing the site to incur a large charge for the overage. The situation was presented to the site's regulars and visitors, and garnered about a dozen contributors. Additionally, the electoral college results page was very large and very popular, and to reduce bandwidth use, all results were split into individual files, one per election year. The Electoral Votes Page went from about 250Kb to about 3Kb, drastically reducing bandwidth usage.
At some point in 2004, the main Constitution page exceeded 2 million hits, and by the end of the year, it was clear that the 3 millionth would likely come in the first half of 2005.
Finally, the site good a consistent boost by being posted as a major resource on the Constitution. The Explore Freedom site was widely advertised in radio, television, and print ads. Additionally, the site's Google performance seems to have been responsible for its linking from dozens of blogs across the Internet, with blogs starting to rival school and college sites as common referrers.
In 2004, the Congress declared that September 17 of each year would be known as Constitution Day (as well as Citizenship Day). It also mandated that every school receiving any federal funds had to have lessons about the Constitution on that day. In 2005, Constitution Day was a Saturday, so lessons were scheduled on the Friday before and the Monday after. In any case, the load on the site jumped to the same proportions previously reserved for Election Day. On the 15th and 16th, traffic spiked at almost 5Gb transferred each day. As a result of the requirement and teacher suggestions, coloring pages were created and added to the site, accessible from the Images Page. Also in late summer 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and the number of hits on the site jumped as people searched for "martial law" and were directed here. Additionally, the Not in the Constitution page was heavily linked to from blogs at the end of the summer, causing spikes of varying degrees at the end of July and throughout August. At some unknown point in mid-2005, the main Constitution page did, indeed, reach its 3 millionth hit.
2006 continued to be a good year for the site - the advent of Google Adwords in particular made the site financially self-sufficient, which was a large burden off my shoulders. News continued to be the primary driver for new pages added to the site. The Slavery and Marriage Topic Pages were new as was a 50-state comparison of the use of the word "God" in state constitutions. Also added were several reference pages, such as the Committee List, the Ratifications List, and the State Ratification Grid. In anticipation of a busy season for the 2006 Constitution Day, the fine folks at ConstitutionFacts.com sponsored several pages on the site, further ensuring the site's financial independence. A companion site, TKConstitution.TK, was created to highlight the constitution of Tokelau. By August 2006, the hit count on the main Constitution page exceeded 4.5 million.
In 2007, many new pages were added to the site, mostly in the Other Documents section. In particular, the individual parts of the Intolerable Acts were added: The Boston Port Act, The Administration of Justice Act, The Massachusetts Government Act, The Quartering Act, and The Quebec Act. After I was a guest on a radio show on WDEL, a listener comment prompted me to add Thomas Paine's Common Sense, something I'd long meant to do and had just never gotten around to. Other additions were a site bibliography and a long-needed site map. Fleshing out the ever-important and interesting documentary history of the Convention, more key documents were added to the site, including copies of the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, the Pinckney Plan, and the British (Hamilton) Plan; as well as the two major drafts, from August 6 and September 12.
My intent is to continue be a resource to every person on the Web, American or otherwise, who is curious about the U.S. Constitution. Its only sponsor is myself. I keep the site up to date for the pure joy of making the document more accessible to more people, particularly school-aged kids. One of my most cherished comments I've received recently was that my site was going to be listed on an elementary school's list of recommended sites. I'm proud that some of the pages linking to my site include libraries, municipal sites, and online course outlines. To me, that is the greatest reward I could hope for.