I was five years old when my grandparents’ cottage burned down. A few years later, three feet of rainwater flooded our basement. All the photos, letters, and diaries lost to fire or flood held pieces of our lives, though their cash value was nil.
Amid campus unrest in the late 1960s, I made a sharp distinction between life and property. One day my stomach sank to hear of someone’s notes destroyed from fifteen years of research. It was only paper. It was also fifteen years of a life.
The line between life and property no longer feels so clear. Yes, murder is more vile than theft. In a fire, save the cat before the heirloom. But the small business or family restaurant that took years to build up is more than bricks and mortar. It’s also years of the family’s life.
Locke wrote governments exist to protect “life, liberty, and property.” For the Declaration of Independence, why did Jefferson make it “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Some say he worried property might protect slaveholders. Some say he knew Locke meant more by property than land and goods.
Property today goes beyond the holdings of the insured and the one percent. For some, it’s inextricably tangled up with liberty, pursuit of happiness, and life itself.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.