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Blackstone, William (1723-1780)

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Sir William Blackstone's (1723-1780) four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England assures him a place in history as one of the greatest scholars of English common law. Blackstone began his lectures on the common law in 1753. His clear, lucid style and the completeness of his work made his lectures and later writings an immediate success. His Commentaries served as a primary instruction tool in England and America well into the nineteenth century and exerted a pronounced influence on the development of the American legal tradition.

Blackstone sought to provide the English common law with the same systematic, rational treatment that Newton and others had given to the natural sciences. He felt the common law should be complete and independent, as if it were a uniform system of logic. To this end, he initially focused his attention on natural law: "This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original."1 

Occasionally, his attempts at a logical synthesis led Blackstone to blur important difficulties and contradictions. He viewed the English common-law system as the culmination of eighteenth-century rationalism, and he saw the English Constitution as the best form of government in existence because it had achieved a perfection of nearly scientific proportions: "Here then is lodged the sovereignty of the British constitution; and is lodged so beneficially as is possible for society. For in no other shape could we be so certain of finding the three great qualities of government so well and so happily united."2  Blackstone was thus part of the movement to apply the systematic theories of natural science to the study of man.

Blackstone's influence on English and American common law was profound precisely because his work is so easily comprehensible and logical in its construction. The Commentaries served as a primary vehicle for the education of lawyers for years after its publication and is still an important source for the history of common law.

Endnotes

[1] Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1771), p. 41.

[2] Ibid., p. 51.

Bibliography

Works by the Author

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1778.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. 4 vols. Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1771.

Blackstone, William. Discourse on the Study of Law being an Introductory Lecture, Read in the Public Schools, October 25, 1758. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1758.

Source

The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

Last modified April 10, 2014