Today marks our nation's 231st birthday, a proud day for all of us. For the first time in history 231 years ago, a political body declared that its citizens had certain unalienable rights - among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - and the right to rid themselves of a government when those rights were trampled. Although democracies have existed before, most notably ancient Athens and the Roman Republic, we're the first nation founded on the notion that these birthrights belong to a widespread group of people, not just the aristocracy. And though progress has been slow, we've gradually expanded those rights to include former slaves, women and young adults.

Unfortunately, we live in a time when those very rights are threatened by ignorance. Only a few years ago when polled about the Bill of Rights, a majority of Americans thought they went too far; some said they even had a Marxist ring to them. Some confuse the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and Emancipation Proclamation. Other Americans are content to think that today is about fireworks and barbecues, with only a vague understanding of what happened 231 years ago.

andquot;No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness,andquot; Thomas Jefferson aptly wrote of education about government and civic responsibility andquot;Preach a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against the evils (of misgovernment.andquot;)

The surest way to continue this grand tradition in democracy is for all to understand the history of how we got here. Indeed, the civil liberty issues of the past few years - the government's collection of data about its citizens, the rights of those held prisoner and religion's role in government - are nothing new. They were discussed during Watergate and the Civil War; opinions about them served as the very justifications for the Revolutionary War - and why we celebrate this holiday.

This Fourth of July, enjoy the festivities. But also take some time to refresh your comprehension of our nation's great history and its heritage of freedom.