The New York Times CyberTimes
[Editor's note: this column appeared in the August 14, 1997 edition of the
New York Times CyberTimes online news source. The original is still archived
This local copy is maintained just in case the original ever disappears from
August 14, 1997
One Man's Passion for 'Living' Constitutions
By CARL S. KAPLAN
Last February, after the Vermont Supreme Court set off a legal earthquake by
declaring that the state's school financing system violated the state
constitution, shocked citizens could calm themselves by reading news articles
and editorials about the matter in The Rutland Herald, The (Barre) Times Argus
and other newspapers that serve the small and independent-minded state.
But for the hardy few who wanted to examine the actual portion of the
constitution involved in the case — Section 68, to be exact — or to
view the common-sense, just-us-folks comments of a Vermont-based amateur
constitutional scholar, the place to visit was Steve Mount's Vermont
Constitution Web site.
There, for all free thinkers, is a complete 20-page hypertext version of the
Vermont Constitution, plus some home-brewed analysis.
"The court ruled that all Vermont children have a right to an education, and
that the education must be equal across all towns," Mount wrote, adding that
the decision was "morally right."
Mount, 28, of Williston, Vt., is not a professor of law or even a lawyer. A
tall and laconic computer programmer with a gentle face, he is a young man who
likes to spend his leisure time in his spare room reading, thinking and writing
about constitutions. For him, a constitution is not a sacred text to be
worshipped. It is a living document meant to be understood and debated by
Indeed, Mount has another, larger Web site containing a hypertext version of
the United States Constitution, which he regards as a marvel of flexibility,
understatement and terseness.
"The First Amendment has, what — 50 words?" he says, touching the
clause's flickering words on his monitor. "But the amount of freedom that is
guaranteed to the people in that sentence is amazing."
The Steve Mount U.S. Constitution site features a glossary defining a few
out-of-date words, such as "emolument" (a fee or salary from employment) and
links to several state and foreign constitutions. It also contains the Mount's
quirky personal notes linked to certain parts of the document. There are a few
paragraphs on the meaning of treason, for example — quite narrowly
defined by the founders — and run-downs on amendments 1, 2, 3, 10, 14 and
25. Visitors to the site can leave comments in a guest book, which is open to
Mount says he first became fascinated with constitutions when he was a
political science student at the University of Vermont. After settling into a
marriage, a job at IDX Systems Corp. in Burlington and starting a family, he
says, he decided in 1995 the time was ripe to begin building a Web page project
that would contribute something to the nation and be personally
He owned a CD-ROM that contained the United States Constitution and some
other historical political charters. He exported the text of the Constitution
to a file and chopped it up, linking various parts of the document for easy
navigation, then posted it on his personal Web page.
Shortly after launching his U.S. Constitution site, Mount started getting e-
mail from school children. One asked whether a woman's right to vote (The 19th
Amendment granting universal suffrage, ratified in 1920) was due to expire in
2008. Mount wrote back, assuring the child that there are no expiration dates
in the Constitution.
But the query got him thinking: Do other young children even know what the
word "suffrage" means? So he decided to add the glossary to his site.
The next step, beginning last year, was to add his comments to the United
States Constitution. To prepare for a note, Mount says he studies the text of
the Constitution, then consults textbooks, encyclopedias and legal cases.
Mount's most controversial commentary, judging from some harsh e-mail
responses, is on the Second Amendment. Mount's view is that the right to bear
arms is "over-stretched" and a little "out-dated." While he believes that the
Constitution protects a citizen's right to own certain types of weapons for the
purpose of self-defense and defense of the nation, ownership of an assault
rifle might be going too far.
One Second Amendment partisan who flamed Mount called him "misleading and
narrow-minded." Another called him "a whole lot liberal" — fighting words
in some parts of the country — and added, "Please don't add your
interpretation to our Constitution, just read what it says, because the only
Constitutional experts I know of died about 200 years ago." Mount wrote back
tartly and true: "Come on, the Constitution is ours to interpret."
The Sage of Williston is the first to admit he is not an expert on
constitutional matters. He says he is learning new things all the time. E-mail
from children doing homework, immigrants studying for citizenship tests and
curious, just plain folks keep him motivated, he says. Some of the more
interesting missives to Mount regarding constitutional questions — and
his answers — are included on his site. He is currently planning to add
commentary on the prohibition madness that resulted in the 18th Amendment
(repealed in 1933), a subject that has always interested him, he says.
The United States Constitution is available online in many places. The
Government Printing Office posts a massive annotated version, for example. And
the Vermont Constitution is available on the Web site of the Vermont
Legislature. But by putting the documents on his own Web pages, Mount says, "I
know they are correct. And I can comment on them to my heart's content."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company