Blackstone, William

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Blackstone, William (1723-1780): English Jurist.

Best known for Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone was born on 10 July 1723, son of Charles Blackstone, citizen and mercer of London, who had died four months earlier, and his wife Mary (daughter of Lovelace Bigg of Wiltshire), who died before he was twelve, leaving him with his uncle, Dr. Thomas Bigg. He attended the London Charterhouse School before entering Pembroke College, Oxford in 1738, receiving a largely classical education. He entered the Middle Temple in 1741, became a fellow of All Souls in 1744, took the Bachelor of Civil Law degree in 1745, was called to the bar in 1746, and became recorder of Wallingford, Berkshire in 1749 during an undistinguished law career. At the suggestion of William Murray (later Lord Mansfield), Blackstone began lecturing on law at Oxford in 1753 and became a delegate of Clarendon Press in 1755, first Vinerian Professor of English Law in 1758, and principal of New Inn Hall in 1761. That year he married Sarah Clitherow (who bore him nine children), became king’s counselor, refused the position of Chief Justice of Common Pleas in Ireland, and was elected to parliament for Hindon, Wiltshire as a Tory. In 1763 he became Solicitor-General to Queen Sophie Charlotte.

Blackstone published several legal tracts, and between 1765 and 1769 he brought out the Commentaries. He resigned his Oxford positions in 1766, was re-elected to the Commons for Westbury, Wiltshire in 1768, and supported the controversial decision to seat Henry Luttrell instead of John Wilkes in 1769. In 1770 he was knighted, refused the office of Solicitor-General, and became a Justice of Common Pleas. He had only a modest impact as a judge, though he issued the decision in Perrin v. Blake in 1772. He and William Eden secured passage of the Penitentiary Act in 1779, though this reform of criminal punishment had little impact until the nineteenth century. He died on 14 February 1780. There are portraits by Gainsborough, Thomas and Reynolds, Sir Joshua.

Blackstone’s Commentaries draws on standard authorities from Bracton onward, especially Matthew Hale’s Analysis of the Law, but it is far more accessible. Book I, “Rights of Persons,” deals with government, church, corporations, and individuals; Book II, “Rights of Things,” with property, especially land; Book III, “Private Wrongs,” with torts; and Book IV, “Public Wrongs,” with crime and punishment. An immediate success—contemporary readers included George III, Burke, Edmund, Charles James Fox, and legions of lawyers and laymen—it went through eight British editions in his lifetime and fifteen more by 1854, as well as numerous abridgements. The standard legal textbook for a century, it helped establish law as a university subject. The first of many American editions appeared in 1771-72, and it was translated into French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. Though outdated in some particulars, Blackstone remains widely read.

Though systematic and thorough, Blackstone was conservative and provincial. He argued that the king could do no wrong, though he regarded parliament as essential and endorsed the separation of powers. He was convinced of the superiority of English common law, though his knowledge of civil law was limited (what he knew came from Burlamaqui, Jean-Jacques, Grotius, Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de, and Pufendorf). His constitutional theory drew upon John Locke and Montesquieu, but he was not an Enlightenment creature. He had numerous critics: Priestley, Joseph objected to his comments on religious dissenters and most famously, Bentham, Jeremy denounced his views on the sovereignty of government, as did John Austin later. Other critics included Boswell, James, Gibbon, Edward, and Johnson, Samuel.

Blackstone had even greater influence in America, where the Commentaries helped establish the common law following the Revolution, to the dismay of the pro-French Jefferson, Thomas, who admired its learning but disdained its illiberal nature. Participants in the Constitutional Convention referred to Blackstone, and both Federalists (e.g., Hamilton, Alexander) and Antifederalists (e.g., Patrick Henry) appealed to the Commentaries in the debate over ratification of the United States Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall later cited Blackstone in Marbury vs. Madison (1803) and the treason trial of Aaron Burr (1807), and it formed an important part of Abraham Lincoln’s legal education.

Further Reading:

David A. Lockmiller, Sir William Blackstone, 1938.

S. F. C. Milsom, The Nature of Blackstone’s Achievement, 1981.

William B. Robison

Southeastern Louisiana University