Sir William Blackstone

The famous English jurist Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) is remembered for his Commentaries on the Laws of England, the first attempt since the 13th century to provide a comprehensive treatment of English law.

William Blackstone was born in Cheapside, London, on July 10, 1723, the posthumous son of Charles Blackstone, a merchant. He was educated at the Charterhouse School and at Oxford and entered the Middle Temple in London in 1740. He was elected a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, in 1744 and received the bachelor of civil law degree in 1745. Although he was admitted to the bar in 1746, he had limited success in practicing law and continued to hold several university posts and to lecture on English law. Shortly thereafter, Blackstone was appointed to the newly created Vinerian chair. In 1761 he was elected to Parliament and also received a patent of precedence giving him the rank of king's counsel. He resigned from his chair in 1766 due to his success at the bar that year, and in 1770 he was appointed a judge in the Court of Common Pleas, where he served, with no special distinction, until his death.


Commentaries on the Laws of England

Blackstone was the first since Henry de Bracton in the 13th century to present an encompassing treatment of English law. The Commentaries (1765-1769), which grew out of Blackstone's university lectures, is a very readable elementary text. Although its scheme of organization is borrowed from an earlier work by Sir Matthew Hale, Analysis of Law, it represents a radical departure from contemporary legal thought, which tended to treat the law as a catalog of unrelated writs and statutes. In Commentaries, Blackstone blended the intellectual traditions of the common law with those of 17th-and 18th-century English political philosophy.

Blackstone had only a vague grasp of systematic conceptions of law, and he was in fact frequently illogical, inconsistent, and uncritical. His purpose, however, was simply to provide literate men with entertaining and persuasive explanations of the existing legal order rather than to construct a critical and consistent jurisprudence. Commentaries performed a service for society and should be regarded more as a handbook for the layman than as a legal treatise.

In his treatment of law Blackstone argued a division between natural and positive (municipal) law by insisting on the existence of a natural law and maintaining that positive law which is not in accord with the principles of natural law is not law at all. But he held that there are few such principles and that most positive law concerns matters on which natural law is silent. Rights and wrongs are objects of law; rights are of persons or things, while wrongs are either public or private. Evidently, he regarded the law of gravitation, the law of England, and the law of nature as examples of the same principle, that is, the imposition of rules by a superior power on its subjects.

Blackstone's lack of precise terminology and use of loose phraseology result in contradictions. When he borrowed the scholastic definition of positive law, "a right or just ordinance commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong," he deliberately struck out "right or just." Thus it is not clear whether he meant that whatever the law commands is right or that only laws that command what is morally right are really laws. He also reasserted the traditional equation of natural law with common law. Thus he did not directly face up to the problem of whether men only have those rights which the law gives them or whether law is simply the acknowledgment by the state of the natural rights inherent in each individual. According to Blackstone, Englishmen enjoyed only those rights which the common law proclaimed, but in fact Englishmen had created the common law to proclaim their rights.


Areas of Influence

Blackstone was active in the prison-reform movement, worked against the tendency to extend the list of capital offenses, and was critical of the poor laws. In some technical areas, such as contract laws, his thinking was in advance of that of most of his contemporaries.

He conceived his task as being educational reform rather than the building of a philosophic system. In the 18th century the Inns of Court had practically ceased to play their traditional role in legal education, and apprenticeship had largely replaced academic training. Blackstone gave the first regular university lectures on English law and sought not only to provide formal instruction for prospective lawyers but to present the basic elements of common law as an integral part of the academic education of English gentlemen.

In the United States, Blackstone's example contributed significantly to the development of law schools, and during the Revolutionary and postrevolutionary periods the Commentaries was the most widely read law text in America. After 1850 United States lawyers no longer tried to copy Blackstone, for living law was being shaped by the local institutions. By the middle of the 20th century few Americans had read Blackstone, even as a classic, but he remains a symbol for American lawyers.


Further Reading on Sir William Blackstone

There are two biographies of Blackstone: David A. Lockmiller, Sir William Blackstone (1938), and Lewis C. Warden, The Life of Blackstone (1938). The major critical treatments are A. V. Dicey, Lectures on the Relation between Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century (1905; 2d ed. 1914); Daniel J. Boorstin, The Mysterious Science of the Law: An Essay on Blackstone's Commentaries (1941); and "Blackstone on the British Constitution," in Ernest Barker, Essays on Government (1945; 2d ed. 1951). See also Theodore F. T. Plucknett, A Concise History of the Common Law (1929; 5th ed. 1956).