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Pierson v. Post: The Backstory

Pierson v. Post is one of the first cases that students learn in law school. But who were “Pierson” and “Post?” Why did they care about a fox pelt anyway? Professor Eric Claeys explains the backstory of the iconic case, and reminds us that every case involves real people with motivations and circumstances that exist outside of the courtroom. https://youtube.com/watch?v=OBh9cZx6Bvs


When I start off a property course, I start with the case Pierson versus Post, affectionately known as the fox case. In it, Post sued Pierson to get the value of a fox pelt, and the fox pelt was worth about $50. Post had been riding a horse, and he'd had a pack of hounds and had been chasing the fox. He chased the fox onto a beach, and the beach was public property. Pierson was on that beach and saw the fox coming and clubbed it to death. Post thought he had had possession of the fox by hunting it down and having it in hot pursuit. Pierson said, "No, I have possession of the fox because I'm the one who killed it." That tees up an important question in property law, what exactly must one do to completely come to acquire a fox pelt or more generally, what must one do to come to completely acquire some article of personal property? Now the case is fun on a lot of different levels. Just even before you get into property law in theory, the case is fun because of a backstory. Post's family was a new money family. The family had made money during the Revolutionary War by running privateer boats and sinking British merchant ships, and that's a good way to make money, but he was kind of nouveau riche. He had tacky wealth. Pierson's family was a good Yankee family, one of the families that had lobbied for the Revolution to happen. Pierson was from a family that viewed itself as old money, established, respectable wealth in the same town. It was also part of the backstory that the Yankee families like Pierson's assumed that this beach, even though it was a public beach, was one that only these respectable families could use. When Post flushed his hounds and rode out like a British aristocrat onto this beach, Pierson was sending a social message that, "You're using a beach that only the real upper crust here can use, and we Yankees don't want these new money rich people pretending to be British fox hunting aristocrats on our beaches." The insult that Post took motivated Pierson's dad and Post's dad to take this to the highest court of New York, even though the fox pelt was worth what we'd say now is only like $3,000. Students enjoy hearing that backstory, and it reminds them right away that litigation or the cases we'll read are not just about the policy issues we're going to cover. They're about real people and sometimes people with real deep seated quarrels.

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