On William Blackstone
Sir William Blackstone by Paul Wayland Bartlett. National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
With this essay of mine, I would like to venture into a new territory, that is, the territory of law. And what better person to start writing about than the great 18th-century English jurist and judge Sir William Blackstone, who is most famous for writing the Commentaries on the Laws of England, a treatise on the common law of England.
In this essay, we will take a brief look at the life and work of the man whose writings on common law are the primary reason for the U.S. and other English-speaking countries adopting common law.
So let us start from the very beginning.
William Blackstone was born on 10th July 1723 in London, England, to Mary and Charles Blackstone. The Blackstone family were members of the middle class but were nevertheless quite prosperous, with several servants at their disposal.
Blackstone was enrolled at the Charterhouse School at the age of 7, where he did quite well. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. Blackstone’s father died and the family’s fortune began to decline. Shortly thereafter, in January of 1736, when he was only 12 years old, his mother passed away too. The death of his mother turned the family fortune on its head and sealed the family’s fate.
Most of the family’s pending resources were used up to pay off unpaid bills and Blackstone suddenly found himself poor. Fortunately, the drastic turn in his family’s fortune did not affect his education at Charterhouse. He remained at the school after being nominated as a poor scholar by Whig politician and statesman Sir Robert Walpole.
Blackstone enjoyed his time at the school and, being a good student, reveled in the school’s academic curriculum. Being particularly taken by the Latin poems of Virgil and Ovid, he began writing poetry.
His poem celebrating the wedding of headmaster James Hotchkis and his Latin verses on the great English poet John Milton gained him some note and repute as a poet at school.
Blackstone’s academic and extra-curricular success at the school made him the favorite student of his teachers. At the age of 15, he was made head of the school and he matriculated at Pembroke College, Oxford, with the help of a scholarship available to the students of the school.
At Pembroke, he studied poetry, philosophy, science, Greek, geography, logic, mathematics, and rhetoric. He was said to be particularly good at poetry, Greek, and mathematics.
Upon examining Blackstone’s undergraduate texts that still survive, it was found that his texts were diverse and wide-ranging in nature, including texts on poetry, current affairs, politics, theology, and geometry. Oddly enough, for someone who would go on to make his name in the legal field, very few legal texts were found.
In July 1740, Blackstone, aged 17, was admitted for a Bachelor of Civil Law degree. The following year, he was admitted to the Middle Temple in the hope of becoming a barrister. Since a proper legal education system did not exist at the time, Blackstone began reading legal texts such as the works of English lawyer Sir Henry Finch and the Institutes of the Laws of England, which was a series of legal treatises written by Sir Edward Coke.
But being a man of wide interests, Blackstone continued to read and learn about a wide variety of subjects. During this period, he published a collection of poetry which included a draft version of The Lawyer to his Muse, which would become his most well-known literary work. He also published two treatises on the rules governing the art of construction, titled An Abridgement of Architecture and Elements of Architecture. And in 1747, he published another book of poetry, The Pantheon: A Vision, anonymously this time.
In November 1946, Blackstone, aged 23, received his call to the Bar by the Middle Temple. He now began alternating between London and Oxford, occupying chambers at Pump Court in London while living at All Souls College in Oxford. During this time, he also worked as a law reporter by taking notes and reporting on well-known cases of the time.
Blackstone’s work as a barrister had a very slow start, revealing nothing of the illustrious future he would go on to have in the legal field. He rarely appeared in court or got cases to work on. This slow start in his career as a barrister may have had to do with his lack of connection with influential people.
To occupy his time during this period, he began acting as counsel for Oxford University and then as Recorder of Wallingford. As an administrator for All Souls, he acted as an accountant, bursar, and treasurer. In this capacity, he organized the finances and estates of the college, even going as far as to simplify the college’s complex accounting system.
In April 1750, Blackstone, aged 26, was awarded the Doctor of Civil Law degree, which enabled him to be admitted to the governing body of Oxford. This additional post as well as his other administrative work at the university convinced him to give up on his career as a barrister for the time being and instead pursue his profession in a way that he felt suited him better, which was to give a series of lectures on the common law at Oxford.
These lectures on common law would become the first of their kind and would revolutionize the way lectures are given in universities across the world.
The first set of lectures was attended by around 20 students. Blackstone was not a natural orator and he maintained a precise and formal tone throughout. The lectures were well-received, and the second and third series ended up becoming even more popular as Blackstone used printed handouts and gave a list of suggested readings, something that had never been done before.
Through these lectures, Blackstone tried to reduce English law to a logical system. The success of the lectures also proved to be quite lucrative for him.
Following the success of his lectures, he was appointed Chief Legal Officer of the Chancellor’s Court, in which capacity he sat around 8-10 times a year from 1753 to 1759, primarily dealing with small claims of debt. He even wrote a manual on the court’s practice during this period.
As the Chief Legal Officer, Blackstone got the opportunity to make several contacts and connections which would help him in his future career.
In 1756, he published his first full legal text, An Analysis of the Laws of England, which demonstrated the order and principal divisions of his lecture series and provided a structured introduction to English law. This treatise was an instant success, with the first 1000 copies selling out almost immediately. This prompted the publishers to print three more 1000-copies lots over the next three years, all of which sold out.
As Blackstone’s influence outside the university grew, his popularity and influence within the university began to wane. An anonymously written open letter accused him of having violated the statutes of the university by arbitrarily changing the day appointed for his lectures.
Blackstone saw these accusations as libel against his character and reputation, resulting in him suffering from a nervous breakdown. In turn, he initiated a suit in the Chancellor’s Court against a certain printer named William Jackson for £500 damages.
It is said that Blackstone’s damaged reputation in Oxford was mainly a result of some of his disagreeable personality traits such as his indifference regarding the effect his words and actions might have on others, while at the same time becoming easily and quickly offended at what he perceived to be slights against his character or motive.
During this time, Lord Mount Stuart, who was the official tutor of Prince George, requested copies of Blackstone’s lectures, which Blackstone gladly assisted with. Prince George soon became Balckstone’s patron, and he would remain so for years to come while he reigned as King George III.
Blackstone’s newfound patronage and his purchase of a set of chambers in the Inner Temple finally led to his departure from Oxford.
In 1759, after his departure from Oxford, Blackstone published his work, The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest, with other authentic Instruments. The work was received well and was praised as a major piece of pioneering scholarship. The success and acclaim the book received were instrumental in his being elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1761.
He published another book, A Treatise on the Laws of Descents in Fee Simple, in 1759, which would later be used in the Commentaries.
By the early 1760s, Blackstone had become an influential figure in the world of letters and academics due to the success of his works. He decided to try his hand at being a barrister once again, this time with the success of his published works and the sponsorship of the Prince of Wales to aid him.
As his legal practice grew with a steady influx of cases coming his way, he continued to give his lectures at Oxford as well. His growing practice as a barrister also increased his out-of-court responsibilities. He was asked to write opinions and recommendations for various Oxford colleges and was asked to draft several private Acts of Parliament.
Around this time, he refused the offer of appointment as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in order to take his seat as a Tory candidate for the rotten borough of Hindon in Wiltshire. It is said that he only spoke 14 times in 7 years in Parliament, not making much of an impact.
In 1762, Blackstone once again tried and failed to get a judicial post in the Exchequer of Pleas. He would go on to apply in vain for the next five vacancies as well.
In the year 1765, he published his most famous and influential work, Commentaries on the Laws of England. The first volume, published in November 1765, brought him around £1,600 and the complete work would eventually bring him over £14,000. The commercial success of the work came at the right time for Blackstone, for by then his private lecture series were yielding fewer profits than the previous years.
The work was a critical and financial success and was praised for being masterly work. Blackstone was lauded for treating the body of the law in a liberal, elegant, and constitutional manner. All copies of the first volume were sold within 6 months. The second volume (published in 1766), third volume (published in 1768), and fourth volume (published in 1769), sold out in a similar fashion.
In 1772, the first American edition of the Commentaries was published in North America. The work had already enjoyed considerable success in the 13 American colonies prior to its official publication in the continent.
The Commentaries would be published and republished in various editions until the 1870s in England and Wales.
By the year 1770, Blackstone’s chances of a judicial appointment were still uncertain and slim, although he had become a highly respected and influential figure in the legal field. This was primarily because of the presence of Lord Camden as Lord Chancellor, and due to Blackstone’s lack of aristocratic patrons.
But the tide soon turned in his favor when Lord Grafton‘s government began to fall in January 1770. Camden and Solicitor-General John Dunning resigned. King George III appointed Lord North as Prime Minister, and North appointed Charles Yorke as Lord Chancellor. Barely three days after his appointment as Lord Chancellor, Yorke died, leaving open several important legal positions within the government.
Blackstone, who was then MP for Westbury, was approached to become the Solicitor-General, but he refused as he did not wish to get involved in the complicated duties of that position. On 9th February 1770, possibly with the intervention of Lord Mansfield and King George III, Blackstone was appointed Justice of the Common Pleas and was made Sergeant-at-Law on 12th February.
However, just four days later, Blackstone was sworn in as a judge of the Court of King’s Bench, while his position at Common Pleas was given to Joseph Yates. But barely 6 months later, Blackstone once again returned to the Common Pleas to operate under a civil jurisdiction, where his judgments were praised for being farsighted and fair.
By the late 1770s, Blackstone had begun suffering from gout and even had a nervous disorder that caused high blood pressure and dizziness. He might have also suffered from diabetes.
By early 1780, his illness grew worse and he became too weak to even write. On 14th February 1780, Blackstone, aged 56, died. He was interred in the family vault under St. Peter’s Church in Wallingford.
Blackstone’s legacy is immense and spans centuries. However, I shall try to cover it in a few more paragraphs, if you do not mind. I am sure you don’t.
Blackstone’s impact through his writings has been great and very significant. The Commentaries were instrumental in changing English law from a system based on actions to a system of substantive law. Before its publication, the common law of England was still somewhat uncertain, and many were unaware of what the law exactly was.
But Blackstone’s Commentaries changed that situation by helping to solidify legal thinking. His work served to give scholarly respectability to the field of law and legal education.
Perhaps Blackstone’s works and ideas had the greatest impact on America, where the Commentaries had a deep influence on the law of the continent. Due to a lack of legal tradition in the U.S. at the time, the Commentaries became the primary source of legal information in the continent, more like a legal bible.
All the formative documents of the U.S. such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalists Papers, and significant decisions of the Supreme Court were all prepared by attorneys deeply influenced by the Commentaries.
The Commentaries were second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions, often being cited in Supreme Court decisions to this very day. The work served as the main source of law in America for nearly a century since its publication.
The modern American law school system was also the brainchild of Blackstone, who had drawn the plan for a dedicated school of law and submitted it to Oxford. When it was rejected, he included it in the Commentaries, thereby influencing a whole continent.
Great men such as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Iredell, John Marshall, James Kent (often referred to as the American Blackstone), and Abraham Lincoln, were influenced by the Commentaries.
Blackstone is widely regarded as a central element in the British Enlightenment, often being compared to figures such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Beccaria. One can hardly deny the fact that he is one of the most influential legal commentators and writers in history.
Anyone interested in making a name for themselves in the legal field must definitely study the life and work of Sir William Blackstone.