The Too-Logical Result of Our Property-Rights Totems

The bizarre news from Stoney Point, off Northshore Drive, provides further evidence of one of my least-favorite theories.

Until last month, I'd assumed the worst-case scenario for Admiral David Glasgow Farragut's embattled birthplace would be that the large stone marker would be off-limits to anyone but the few affluent property owners who bought property there. Now the marker's just gone. The current property owner had it removed. The story is that it's in the hands of a "collector" in Texas.

The inscribed stone was a 1900 project by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. America's most famous military man of the time, Admiral Dewey, the hero of Manila Bay in the recent Spanish-American War, rode in a flotilla of riverboats just to dedicate it. The dedication drew thousands, and made national news; reporters came from New York and Washington to cover it.

Before that day, locals rarely pronounced the word "Farragut." The fact of his birth was known to historians, who occasionally mentioned it, but before Dewey's grand gesture, Farragut's name didn't appear on anything in Knox County. The big dedication of this marker prompted Knox Countians to name first a school, then a hotel, then a restaurant, then an incorporated community, for David Glasgow Farragut, first admiral of the U.S. Navy, and native son.

Some are still looking into the legality of removing the marker. It's likely that, in 1900, paperwork guaranteeing easements just didn't seem necessary. This was private property, but a very public bit of private property. For more than 40 years after the placement of the monument, it was a ferry landing, visited by thousands yearly. Then came new roads and the big dam, and Lowe's Ferry closed. Still, in the late 1940s, the owner of Stoney Point wanted to donate the land to be a public park, even a tiny national park. Some congressmen, including the 2nd District representative, got behind the idea and started the paperwork. It was never completed.

Heritage, and especially honor for the bravest of military heroes, is important to conservative politics. In recent years, the issue of property rights sometimes looms larger. What happens when they come in conflict?

The issue came up earlier in the summer when a rural property owner sought to burn down an 1840s house—one of only half a dozen frame antebellum houses remaining in Knox County—for the spectacle of it. An agent for the owner denounced organized efforts to prevent the blaze, insisting that the owner was "a conservative Republican" and therefore had the right to do whatever he pleased with the house. Its fate remains unresolved.

Conservatives don't campaign against history. Concerning preservationist issues, local conservative politicians have learned to say that heritage is important—then add, quickly, that respect for property rights is paramount.

That can sound reasonable. But can a community where the current property owner is the sole arbiter of historical value ever enjoy a visible, tangible heritage?

It's a mathematical question. Property changes hands, sometimes by purchase, sometimes by inheritance, sometimes deliberately, sometimes almost by accident, when an unexpected death discloses a surprising heir. In a growing community, property tends to change hands pretty rapidly.

A certain percentage of the population—a minority, but a substantial one—has no particular interest in physical heritage. Based on people I meet, I'd guess it's about 10-20 percent of the population. To them, history's a boring high-school memory, like calculus, and thoughts about dead people are just kind of creepy and gross.

They're not necessarily bad people, or dumb people. Some of them are charming. They're often very practical sorts for whom a word like Heritage is pointy-headed mumbo-jumbo, not nearly as compelling as a Carnival cruise or dreams of retirement to a golf resort in Florida.

Laws of probability suggest that every privately owned historic site will eventually end up in the hands of someone who doesn't care much about history. Independent-minded property owners have an advantage over preservationists: one property owner can cancel generations of care. Without some permanent enforceable protections in place, a community will erase its own history.

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Consider the peculiar case of Knoxville, Tennessee. Among America's older cities, Knoxville started life as a nationally important town, home of heroes and statesmen. It was the birthplace of the state of Tennessee, and for over 20 vigorous years its capital.

If many Knoxvillians today aren't aware of their hometown's national significance, it may be partly due to the fact that the "old capitol" where the Legislature met is no longer standing. Nor is the large hall where the Tennessee Constitution was signed in 1796. Nor the office where Tennessee's first newspaper, and its first law books, were published. Nor East Tennessee's first bank. Nor the large, legendary riverfront tavern known to dukes and diplomats. Nor any of the original buildings of a college that became a university.

Over the years, some of these landmarks were honored by their owners. Some once had plaques on them. Each of them eventually wound up in the hands of a property owner who didn't care much. They all vanished.

In 1805, a French traveler described Knoxville as a state capital consisting of about 200 houses. Guess how many are still intact.

Just the one. Even Blount Mansion was a narrow escape; in 1925, its lawful owner wanted to tear down the home of the frontier governor and signer of the U.S. Constitution for a parking lot.

We could go on to describe lost Civil War relics and homes of several nationally notable authors. Cormac McCarthy's South Knox home, for example, described in his Pulitzer-winning novel, could have been a landmark. Its last owner decided it wouldn't be.

Knoxville, the city, has developed some tardy appreciation for its complicated heritage. It doesn't extend very far into suburban and rural areas, where suggestions of heritage are sometimes greeted with hostility. I sometimes wonder if, on some psychological level, we don't like the idea that we have a history. A property-rights community tends to slouch toward blankness.