There’s a dispute going on in Princeton, NJ over a parcel of land that may or may not be a critical piece of the Jan. 3, 1777 battlefield. Enlisted to speak for those wishing to build on the site is Dr. Mark Peterson, who argues that the case is not as clear-cut as opponents of the project suggest. For all I know, he may be right about that.
I do, however, think he’s wrong when he invokes precedent as a guide to current behavior:
Dr. Peterson suggested there are other ways to memorialize historic events, in addition to preserving the land from development. He pointed to several sites that were important in the Revolutionary War, but that have since been developed and do not reflect the way they looked in the 18th century.
In Lexington, Mass., where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, the bodies of the American militiamen who died were buried in cemeteries scattered around the area, he said. But many years later, the bodies were disinterred and reburied next to a monument that was placed on the site.
A plaque at Cambridge Common, which also figured in the Revolutionary War and which was the site where Gen. Washington took command of the Continental Army, is part of Harvard Square. Land has not always been set aside as “sacred ground,” Dr. Peterson said.
This reminds me of an argument I used to hear in support of the Gettysburg casino. There’s plenty of schlock around the battlefield already (as this line of reasoning went) so it makes little sense to freak out over a single gambling resort. I’ve never found this persuasive. One could just as easily make the same argument about natural resources: People used to clear-cut forests with merry abandon and shoot down every bison in sight, so what’s the big deal?
Lousy stewardship of historic ground in the past shouldn’t be a license for us to proceed carelessly today. If anything, it should serve as a cautionary tale.