It's Not About the Fox: The Untold History of Pierson v. Post
55 Pages Posted: 24 Jan 2006
For generations, Pierson v. Post, the famous fox case, has introduced students to the study of property law. Two hundred years after the case was decided, this Article examines the history of the case to show both how it fits into the American ideology of property, and how the facts behind the dispute challenge that ideology. Pierson is a canonical case because it replicates a central myth of American property law, that we start with a world in which no one has rights to anything and the fundamental problem is how best to convert it to absolute individual ownership. The history behind the dispute, however, suggests that the heart of the conflict was a contest over which community would control the shared resources of the town and how those resources would be used. The historical record is far from complete, so I offer my conclusions tentatively. But this is what I believe it shows. Pierson was among the proprietors, those who had inherited from the town's original settlers special rights in the undivided lands where the fox was caught. The fox hunt occurred in the midst of a growing dispute over whether the proprietors or the town residents as a whole had rights in these common lands. Although Post does not appear to have had proprietors' rights, his father had become wealthy in the West India trade after the war, and the family flaunted this wealth from commerce. Post's elaborate fox hunt over the commons would have been perceived as another display of conspicuous wealth, inimical to the town's agricultural traditions. The Piersons, in contrast, descended from a long line of educated gentleman farmers and town leaders, and would have followed the town's traditions of puritan thrift. Pierson and Post's conflict over the fox, I believe, was not really about the fox, but was instead part of this growing conflict over who could regulate and use the common resources of the town, and over whether agricultural traditions or commerce and wealth would define its social organization.
Keywords: Property, Class, Law, History
JEL Classification: K10, K11, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation