Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Argue With A Fence Post

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 13, 2015

Someone who would argue with a fence post is someone who enjoys arguing for argument’s sake.  In fact, they’re so argumentative and so stubborn that they don’t care who their opponent is.  Someone who will argue with a fence post is someone who will argue with anyone at any time … and sometimes with everyone all the time.

Robert Reno’s column in the News-Journal of November 18, 1993 took on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and what Bill Clinton was up to at the time.  While  he could have stated his position with more bite, he chose to say that Clinton’s first year as president taught Americans that their President was a master of the art of moving target politics.  The article titled, “Clinton A Moving Target” made good use of the idiom in this paragraph.

And where did they find him this week?  In their own bed, on NAFTA at least.  Clearly — unless he self-destructs from the weight of his own style — the Republicans are never going to defeat this guy by debating him.  That’s his briar patch.  He’d argue with a fence post.

The idiom was also used in an article in the “Lutheran Society for Worship, Music and the Arts” magazine published in 1961 by the University of Virginia.

Has the church neglected the Upper Ten?  We have.  We have piously sat back on our own justification by faith and said:  “Poor fellow! Just educated himself right out of his faith.  Read too much, heard too much, intellectualized too much.  I really feel sorry for him”; or “Well, after all, you can’t argue with a fence post, and he doesn’t want the truth; he only wants an argument.”

Philip Beaman published a book of idioms titled, “Eastern North Carolina Sayings: From Tater Patch Kin to Madder than a Wet Setting Hen” in February 2014.  For those who haven’t heard of the author, he comes from a family of nine children, and was raised on a tobacco farm in rural East North Carolina.  Despite holding four college degrees and having invested 35 years as an educator, he continues to live in rural North Carolina.  Philip Beaman’s book is filled with idioms he heard as a child.  Born in 1936, that means that what he heard was were established sayings members in the community understood in the 1940s including the one about arguing with a fence post.

It’s difficult to trace back this idiom although it’s considered to be primarily a southern expression.  That being said, Idiomation came at this challenge from the other direction.  What society understands a fence to be is found in legal documents in England as early as the 1600s, and the term as we understand it to mean, was used in laws that were made in Virginia beginning in 1631.

By 1646, fence laws were such that the legal definition of a lawful fence was one that was four and a half feet above ground and at least a half-foot below ground.  In other words, the fence, by law, had to be substantial at the bottom, and it had to be a sturdy fence.  Fence posts were to be no farther than twelve feet apart, and on the forty-two inches that were above ground, they were to have at least three boards firmly attached to them.  The fences were to be made of timber which was plentiful in most of western Virginia.

What’s more, the laws that were enacted at the time were strict and could not be argued because of the great amount of detail that was part of the law on fences.  Additionally, any filed fence agreements between landowners were binding between successive generations and successive landowners.

In other words, once a fence was erected and once there was a filed fence agreement between neighbors, nothing could be done to bring that fence down.  It was to stay up and it was to be maintained by both property owners who shared the fence between them.

If the idiom in its entirety is considered, it would seem that the idiom sprung from the fence laws of Virginia.

He would argue with a fence post, then pull up the post and argue with the hole.

Based on the fence laws, arguing with the fence post or the hole in which it was sunk would have no effect on the fence post or the hole, no matter how much the other person argued the point.  If someone argued over the fence laws of the day, they weren’t going to get anywhere and they knew they weren’t going to get anywhere. it would have to be someone who loved to argue to argue any aspect of the fence law.

While Idiomation was unable to peg an exact date when the idiom was first used, the reason for the idiom seems to lead directly back to the fence laws of Virginia in the early 1600s.

2 Responses to “Argue With A Fence Post”

  1. Erik said

    I had to move a few fence posts this summer. They are tough to argue with, but it can be done. I live in Virginia so perhaps the old laws are fading, who knows?

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