Friday, July 3, 2009

Pierson v. Post: The Protagonists

[This is the second in a series of posts on the case of Pierson v. Post. The series begins here.]

For a very long time, all that was known about Pierson v. Post, was what appeared in Caines’s Reports and a newspaper article published well after the fact, an account in the Sag Harbor Express of October 24, 1895, by the judge and local historian Henry Parsons Hedges (1817-1911). Hedges claimed to have met Jesse Pierson (1780-1840) and Lodowick Post (1777-1842). He judged them “specimens of physical power and high resolve that would have made them as champions formidable in modern or ancient times,” as well as “rich, resolute, [and] wilful.” According to Hedges, Jesse was walking home from his job as a schoolteacher “when he saw the fox fleeing from his pursuers and run into the hiding place,” which Hedges identified as “an old shoal well.” “ In a moment, with a broken rail, he was at the well’s mouth and killed the fox, threw it over his shoulder, and was taking it home when Lodowick, with his hounds and partisans, met him and demanded the fox.” Jesse demurred. “It may be you was going to kill him, but you did not kill him,” he retorted. “I was going to kill him and did kill him.”

Readers have never known just how far to credit Hedges’s account. Our knowledge of the case improved significantly with the appearance of a spate of articles between 2002 and 2009. This note summarizes some of “the new learning.”

The Protagonists

Because of the youthfulness of the litigants and what must have been a great disparity between the expense of the litigation and the value of the fox, generations of property teachers have speculated whether animosity between the litigants’ fathers, who must have paid the bills, was behind the case. Property teachers dating at least from the great James Casner and Barton Leach have suspected that the dispute had an ethnic dimension. It was a squabble between a “stubborn affronted Dutchman” and an “English-descended violator of the fox-hunter’s code,” they speculated, seemingly on the supposition that “Lodowick” was a Dutch name. In an article published in 2006, the law professor Bethany Berger points out that the name was “as likely English or Scottish.” (One might add that if the Posts were Dutch, Hedges would have discovered the fact and woven it into his tale.) Now it appears that although a social conflict was at work, it was not ethnic but a clash between an established member of a traditional society and an ostentatious arriviste.

Jesse Pierson’s family had deep roots in his community, Southampton, New York. His father, David, fought in the Revolutionary War and, according to Hedges, was“of the best blood of England: so strong in Calvinist inclinations and proclivities that some called him a fatalist.” Berger adds that David was elected thirteen times as the town’s “fence viewer,” “charged with ensuring that individuals maintained their portion of fence against straying animals and did not fence in land that was not their own,” or as its commissioners of highways. His service confirms Hedges’s claims for his stature in Southampton society.

The Piersons probably regarded the Posts as vulgar upstarts, who, with their fox hunting, aped the English gentry and trampled upon social conventions. Nathan Post had become wealthy not through peaceable, virtuous agriculture but through war and commerce. Their appearances in local histories, Angela Fernandez reports, were “usually in association with a lucrative economic interest they were involved with such as whaling.” They lived in town, in what Hedges described as “a capacious dwelling,” with well-decorated walls, wainscoting, and other touches “in what was then thought superior style.” (It also had a whipping post for his slaves, which Hedges claimed to have seen.) Nathan had gained a financial stake as a privateer during the Revolutionary War and made still more money trading with the West Indies. A contemporary who tangled with him in a minor affair of town politics left a scathing description:
Capt. Post descended from parentage extremely low and poor; accordingly his education was rough and uncouth. Yet he possessed a strong desire to be thought a man of information and importance. This frequently led him to tell large, pompous stories, of which himself was ever the hero. He was a great swaggerer over those whom he found calculated to bear it; but to others he was supple, cringing, and mean.
This contemporary was a quarrelsome man who invariably depicted his opponents in the worst possible terms. Perhaps Post’s gravestone was a more reliable guide to his character. “He was a respectable Magistrate, a kind relation, a good Patriot, and an honest man,” it proclaimed. Then again, perhaps even this testimony should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

In any event, and as Hedges wrote, “If a contest should arise between these sons, and if the fathers should each advocate the cause of his son, it would be no ordinary conflict.”

Image Credit: William Merritt Chase, The Pot Hunter (1894)

More here.