The views articulated in the essay later served as a model for 20th century human rights activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
As free Americans we are quick to point out the many imperfections of our government and its leaders. Too often we forget that not all that many people in the world, even today, enjoy the freedoms to make such personal observations and criticisms.
Like Thoreau in 1849, Americans are and have been free to speak our minds and work to change the things that we believe require changing. That's both our birthright and our Constitutional right. In my opinion, it's also among our responsibilities as good and informed citizens, too.
There were two strong beliefs underpinning the essay on "Civil Disobedience:" (1) Thoreau vehemently disagreed with America's pursuit of the Mexican War; and (2) he was totally opposed to slavery.
In protest, he refused to pay his taxes, for which transgression he spent one night in the local jail. An anonymous friend bailed him out.
Thoreau then wrote "Civil Disobedience," in which he argued for limited government. In fact, he believed that in an ideal world the best government would be no government at all. Only our individual conscience about right and wrong would dictate how we would live and interact as citizens.
Obviously these radical and somewhat unique views did not exactly endear him to government officials.
Today Thoreau is widely recognized as one of the great American minds of the 19th century. "Civil Disobedience" is still widely read and discussed throughout America.
But that's not the way it works in China. Not at all.
China just released a self-congratulatory first ever annual report on what it claims to be progress with respect to the free exercise of human rights by Chinese citizens. However, the article Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics is tellingly sub-titled "A new report shows how Beijing Justifies Disappearing dissidents."
Here's more of what the article says, "To understand ... one has to go back to Mao Zedong's most important speech, "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People." The people, Mao said in 1957, have the right to take part in politics. But the people is defined as those who are loyal to the Communist Party. Anyone deemed disloyal to the Party is excluded from the people and loses his rights.
Likewise in today's China, human rights protect you only if you subscribe to the Party's definition of those rights. All members of society work toward economic development and the collective good. Those who insist on individual political rights threaten economic development. Because that imperils the cause of human rights, they are no longer members of society and the government is right to silence them.In that spirit, an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law is pending to allow authorities to detain suspects in secret locations without notifying their families. This would legalize the increasingly common practice of having high-profile dissidents "disappear.""
Doesn't sound much like Thoreau, does it?
Here's the story. China says people can speak their minds as long as what they say agrees with the Communist party line. Otherwise they may disappear.
Thoreau didn't disappear when he spoke his mind more than 160 years ago. My guess is that had he been Chinese, we never would have heard of him or been exposed to his opinions.
I also wonder how many Thoreaus there might have been in China over the past several centuries.
On the other hand, I don't wonder at all how lucky I am to be an American.
So let's roll up our sleeves and get to work changing what needs changing in our great country. That's both our civic right and our responsibility, too. By so doing, we will make America an even better society for our future citizens.