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Friday, August 28, 2015

The 250th anniversary of William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England

by Heather Kushnerick, Special Collections Librarian & College Archivist
     William Blackstone was born in London July 10, 1723. After the deaths of his parents, he was raised by his uncle and received a classical education. While he loved poetry, he decided to study law. He was called to the bar in 1746 and was not what you would call successful. He returned to Oxford when he was elected to the position of bursar of All Souls College. He continued his studies, and in 1750 was awarded the degree of Doctor of Civil Law. After being passed over for a professorship, he was encouraged by William Murray, the future Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, to give lectures on the English common law.
     The lectures were very well attended, and it was not long after that Blackstone made the observation that students needed textbooks to supplement the lectures. To that end, he published the syllabus for his lectures in 1756 as An Analysis of the Laws of England. Due in large part to the popularity of his lectures, Blackstone was appointed as the first Vinerian Professor at Oxford in 1758. The position required him to give 60 lectures a year on the laws of England. “This marked the first recognition by a university of the importance of instruction in English common law.” (Zeydel p. 307)
      Prior to Blackstone, the common law was a mass of precedents which had not been formalized in to basic principles. The Commentaries not only put the common law into a comprehensible system but also taught readers how to conceptualize legal questions. The four volume set, which totals around 2000 pages, is broken down into the rights of persons; the rights of things (property); private wrongs and their redress (remedies); and public wrongs (criminal law).  By emphasizing the teaching method of clear lecture and teaching content of both substance and procedure, Blackstone suggested the beginning of law schools, and it was from his plan that the first American law schools were built. (ibid, p. 308)
      While the Commentaries met with some criticism in Britain, they were hugely popular in the American colonies. The first printing in the Americas came from Robert Bell, a publisher and book seller in Philadelphia in 1772. The fourth volume contained a list of all the subscribers - over 800 of them. Printing a work such as the Commentaries was a large and expensive undertaking. Because of this, printers would use subscriptions to underwrite the production of a book.   Among those eager to own a copy were 16 future signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as one Captain Thomas Marshall, father of then 16 year old John Marshall, future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Blackstone had a great influence on American law and government, even though he believed that the American colonists didn’t have the same common law rights as British subjects and voted for the Stamp Act as a Member of Parliament.(ibid, p. 311-312)
      Regardless of his personal feelings about the rights of the colonies, the people themselves were voracious consumers of his Commentaries. According to Lockmiller, it was “instrumental in preparing legal minds to make prompt attacks and resourceful defenses in the relations between the colonies and the mother country prior to the outbreak of hostilities.” (Lockmiller, pp. 172-173) The Constitutional convention used Blackstone's analysis of the English government to set up the structure of the government as set out in Articles I,II, and III of the Constitution.  The fledging nation used the English common law to establish the basis of its legal system, and the Commentaries were its printed representation. Blackstone also influenced generations of legal minds in the United States. From James Kent to Abraham Lincoln, American lawyers read, often several times, Blackstone’s Commentaries. In North Carolina it was the standard text for law students and was, in fact, the most popular textbook in the United States. It was an indispensable tool for law students, lawyers, and judges: between 1789 and 1915 it was cited, and usually approved, in American cases over 10,000 times (ibid, p. 179). It is still consulted today when questions about the meaning of the Constitution arise, and the US Supreme Court still cites the Commentaries in its opinions.
      Two hundred and fifty year ago, William Blackstone did what no other writer had done before: he made the common law understandable to lawyer and layman alike. He created categories and put the common law into a comprehensible system. He taught his readers how to conceptualize legal questions. (Berring, p. 191) His method included a view  that the law could respond to changing needs, that it was part of a social system. This is not to say the work didn’t have its flaws; however, those pale in comparison to what Blackstone achieved.  In the fledgling United States, the Commentaries wasn’t just an explanation of the law, it became the law. (Posner, p. 571) It taught the founding fathers their rights, assisted them in creating our government, and became the bible of the American lawyer for over 100 years.
      On display now in the second floor lobby of the Fred Parks Law Library is a display some of the library’s holdings of the Commentaries, including the first edition, as well as works by American legal scholars inspired by Blackstone and those by his critics. “Celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Commentaries on the Laws of England” will be on display until November 19, 2015.

Works cited/consulted:
Robert Berring. “The Ultimate Oldie by Goodie: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.”, 4 J. L. 189 2014
David A. Lockmiller. Sir William Blackstone. (Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith. 1970).
Albert S. Miles., David L. Dagley, Christina H. Yau.”Blackstone and His American Legacy,” 5 Austl. & N.Z. J.L. & Educ. 46 2000.
Richard Posner. “Blackstone and Bentham” 19 J. L.  & Econ. 569 1976.
Walter H. Zeydel.  “Sir William Blackstone and His Commentaries,” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, vol 23, no. 4, October 1966.