Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics in Antebellum New York

By Reeve Huston | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
FAST-FISH AND THE TEMPLE
OF THE PHILISTINES

These two laws touching Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, I say, will, on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence; for notwithstanding its complicated tracery of scripture, the Temple of the Law, like the Temple of the Philistines, has but two props to stand on.

Is it not a saying in everyone's mouth, Possession is half of the law; that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow's last mite but a Fast-Fish? What is yonder undetected villain's marble mansion with a door-plate for a waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish?

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

With these words, Herman Melville offered a painful insight into the political economy of his era. The passage was first published in 1851, shortly after the Compromise of 1850 ended a protracted struggle over slavery and preserved a political climate in which the claim to human property was insulated from political challenge. Regarding property in human beings, the law of fast-fish was inviolable. 1

Nor was Melville referring only to slavery. When he referred to “the rapacious landlord, ” he may have had the leasehold estates of his native New York in mind, for it was upon the law of fast-fish that the tenants' movement finally foundered. Between 1847 and the publication of Moby Dick, anti-renters learned with dramatic finality the limits to popular power under the second party system. For all their electoral power, they could not compel their government to abrogate the tangle of laws and legal rules that made landlords'

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