July 4, 1776, was when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by what became the first 13 states of what would become this country.
The Declaration of Independence signaled the end of the age of monarchies and absolute rule and the beginning of democracy where people could elect others to represent them to enact laws that would affect everyone.
The people who wrote and signed the Declaration were subjects of King George, but not for long. After winning the War of Revolution, many of those same visionaries sat down to write the Constitution. They later added the first 10 amendments, popularly known as the Bill of Rights, which defends individuals from the intrusion of government.
The founders of this country were extraordinary men, but they didn't invent what they wrote out of whole cloth. They leaned on the writings of others, including English poet John Milton. In his 1644 essay, "Areopagitica," Milton wrote what is still the best argument for free speech that became the cornerstone of the First Amendment of our Constitution.
He wrote that in a conflict of free ideas the truth will always win.
It was an extraordinary statement to be written in 1644 when monarchies and churches, especially the Catholic Church, ruled the world. It would still be an extraordinary statement today when the "truth" is always suspect and open to question to anyone who writes anonymously on Web sites such as Palo Alto Online's Town Square forum.
There, people can vent whatever they want to say without signing their name and without any regard to how what they write may hurt other people.
It brings out the worst in people.
I sign my name to everything I write. It's about accountability, in which I deeply believe. I reply as thoughtfully as I can to every reader who writes or calls to challenge me about something I have written.
Those exchanges can be frustrating, but at least I know with whom I am communicating.
People will disagree. That's the result of intelligent people who care about things voicing their Constitution-protected right to say whatever irks them, maybe also thanks to John Milton.
I didn't mention the Catholic Church haphazardly, by the way. Back in Milton's day, scholars exchanged ideas by writing in Latin, the language of the church (which is why Milton's essay is known by its Latin title).
Thankfully, none of us have to write in Latin.
But as a lapsed Catholic, I still know what "per omina secula saculorum" means.
It means "for ever and ever," and exactly translated it means "into all generations of generations."
Here, that lasts about five minutes, or however long it takes for someone to rip into someone else for expressing an opinion on Town Square, mostly under the cloak of anonymity.
Having energetic debates about public policy issues was unheard of Milton's day unless one wrote in Latin, and we are better off for it.
But it troubles me how often people are angry and disrespectful of other people's opinions and feelings.
When I see people at public meetings they are usually considerate of the opinions of others, but something gets unleashed when people write anonymously.
Maybe people should pretend they are accountable when they write words that can hurt.
For an additional history note, it's well known that the words to our national anthem were written by Francis Scott Key. He was a poet who was being held captive above decks on a British ship during the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, when Americans again fought those dastardly British.
Other Americans were being held captive below decks and they asked him what he could see.
Go, you poets.