Source: Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books. Notes selected from the editions of Archibold, Christian, Coleridge, Chitty, Stewart, Kerr, and others, Barron Field’s Analysis, and Additional Notes, and a Life of the Author by George Sharswood. In Two Volumes. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1893). Vol. 1 - Books I & II. Chapter: A MEMOIR OF SIR WILLIAM BLACKSTONE
Copyright: The text is in the public domain.
Fair Use: This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The ambition of posthumous fame is very general, if not universal, among mankind. It is one of the strong arguments for our immortality, that we stretch out our desires beyond the brief span of our present existence and live in the future. A sad and dreary thought would it be to a man,—that of dying unwept by any one, unhonoured by any survivor, and entirely forgotten as soon as removed from sight. If not an actor upon the more prominent theatre of the world’s history, within some narrower circle of society—his neighbourhood, his friends, his family, or at least his descendants—every one looks anxiously forward, in the hope that his memory will be respectfully cherished, his faults and foibles overlooked and excused, his virtues adorned in their fairest and loveliest colours. Whether, in that spirit-land where our immortal natures still live after their earthly tabernacles have crumbled to their original clay, they have any knowledge of or interest in the affairs of the world which they have left behind, we do not know: it has not been revealed to us. From that bourne no traveller has returned. The faculties and powers of the soul,—especially memory,—the strong affections of the heart, all belonging to and constituting an inseparable part of its spiritual nature, as well as its unwearying activity even while the body reposes in soundest slumber, render it, to say the least, a reasonable conjecture that, though engaged in moral and intellectual employments and enjoyments much nobler and purer than earth’s, they are still spectators—interested, curious spectators—in the works of God’s providence which relate to his moral creation. The common superstitions of the people in all ages and countries, which may be regarded either as the tradition of an original revelation or the result of a strongly-impressed innate sentiment, are not without weight on such a question. Such superstitions have intertwined themselves with the earliest poetry: they form a part of the legends of childhood: in spite of ourselves, we are all, more or less, believers in the communion of spirits. The man who has entirely cast off this prejudice or superstition, if we please to term it so, has lost one restraint which has been known to exert its salutary influence when even the sense of higher accountability has been disregarded. We may well fancy, then, a power in departed spirits of watching and tracing the influences of their own lives, writings, or actions upon those who have come after them. If these influences have been for human virtue and happiness, the wider and more extended the purer must be the pleasure afforded; if they are otherwise, they must be the source of bitter, unavailing, and never-ending regrets. Such considerations may well excite us to the practice of virtuous actions, to the cultivation of noble and generous sympathies and emotions: a part of their appropriate reward may be the observation hereafter of their widening circles as they spread with their influences for good the name we have borne, down to the remotest generation.
The fame of a lawyer, however much he may live in the public eye, and however large may seem the space he occupies in the public consideration, is in general a very narrow and circumscribed one. He is prominently useful in his own day and generation and among his contemporaries. He supports and defends the accused and oppressed; he maintains the cause of the poor and friendless; he succours those that are ready to perish; he counsels the ignorant, he guides and saves those who are wandering and out of the way, and, when “he has run his course and sleeps in blessings,” his bones “have a tomb of orphans’ tears wept on them.” How much untold good is done by an honest, wise, and generous man, in the full practice of this profession, which even those to whom he has consecrated his time and thoughts without the hope of adequate compensation never appreciate! How often, contrary to his own interest, does he succeed in calming the surges of passion, and leading the bitter partisan to measures of peace and compromise! How often does his beneficence possess that best and purest characteristic of the heavenly grace, that his right hand knoweth not what his left hand doeth! Yet—beyond the circle of his own profession, the student of which may occasionally meet with a few brief evidences of his learning and industry in print on the pages of some dusty report-book, and pause to spell his name and wonder who he was—posterity will scarcely ever hear of him, and his severest efforts and brightest intellectual achievements will sink forever in the night of oblivion. The important case of Taylor on the demise of Atkyns vs. Horde was argued before Lord Mansfield and the court of King’s Bench about one hundred years ago. The title to a large estate was at issue; knotty and difficult points of old law-learning were required to be discussed, and they were discussed with exhausting research and ability. It is not to be doubted that the counsel engaged were the most eminent at the English bar. We have a further assurance from the character of some of them. Mr. Pratt,—afterwards Lord Camden, a name forever associated with English liberty, as the dauntless opponent of general warrants, and the champion of American colonial rights upon the floor of Parliament,—Mr. Yorke, son of Lord-Chancellor Hardwicke, the Hon. Charles Yorke, afterwards Lord-Chancellor, are named as of counsel for plaintiff. With them were Mr. Caldecot, the compiler of the Settlement Cases. Opposed to these men, there were for the defendant the names of Mr. Knowles, Mr. Perrot, and Mr. Sergeant Prime. Pratt and Yorke having occupied high political and judicial positions, their lives have been written, their characters have been portrayed and will be preserved. Who were these others deemed worthy to enter the lists and measure lances with them in this important intellectual contest? Where is their memorial, even among the members of that profession of which, while they lived, they were the pride and ornament?
Besides official and political position, which must frequently give character and fame to the lawyer, there are some other exceptions,—of those who hand down their names within the bounds of their profession by contributing valuable works to its legal literature. The legal writings of Lord Coke have contributed more than his office and influence to this result. Hale, Foster, Gilbert, and others may be placed in the same category. But that they have largely paid that debt which, according to Lord Bacon, every man owes to his profession, how soon would the names of Fearne, Hargrave, Butler, Preston, Powell, Stephen, and Williams have to be classed with those of Knowles, Perrot, and Prime!
There is one English legal writer whose fortune in this respect is peculiar. He produced an elementary work,—written with so much system and accuracy, and in style and language so pure and elegant, that it not only at once assumed and has ever since maintained the place of First Institute of legal education to all who make the common law of England their special study, but became a book of instruction and interest to scholars and gentlemen of all pursuits,—which has been for that reason translated into many other tongues. That lawyer was Sir William Blackstone. An American author has in like manner illustrated his name by a work which both here and abroad will forever stand alongside and share the enviable fame of that of the illustrious English commentator. It is unnecessary to name James Kent.
The father of Sir William Blackstone was Charles Blackstone, a citizen and silkman of London, whose family was from the West of England. He was born on the 10th July, 1723: his father had died before; and he lost his mother at the early age of eleven.
By the early loss of both parents, William and his two brothers Charles and Henry were thrown upon the care of their maternal uncles. Charles and Henry were educated at Winchester, under the care of Dr. Bigg, who was warden of that school. Both of them took orders in the Church. The care and education of William fell to the lot of another uncle,—Mr. Thomas Bigg, an eminent surgeon of London.
In 1730, William, then about seven years old, was put to school at the Charter-House, and in 1735 was, by the nomination of Sir Robert Walpole, through the influence of another member of his mother’s family, admitted as a scholar upon its foundation. He is said to have been a studious and exemplary boy and to have gained the favour of his masters. At the age of fifteen he was at the head of the school, and was thought sufficiently advanced to be removed to the university; and he was accordingly entered a commoner at Pembroke College, in Oxford, on the 30th of November, 1736. He was allowed to remain at school until after the 12th of December, the anniversary commemoration of the foundation of the Charter-House, in order that he might deliver the customary oration in honour of Richard Sutton,—by which he gained much applause.
After having been three years prosecuting his studies at this illustrious seat of learning, on the 20th November, 1741, being then eighteen, he entered himself a member of the Middle Temple and commenced the study of the law. He was called to the bar as soon as the probationary period of five years had expired,—viz., on the 28th November, 1746.
In the early periods of English jurisprudence, the Inns of Court were resorted to by large numbers of young gentlemen, not merely to acquire a profession, but to complete a liberal education by the study of the laws of their country. In the time of Fortescue, who wrote in the reign of Henry VI., there are said to have been about eighteen hundred or two thousand students in the Inns of Court and Chancery. The number was still very considerable in the time of Ben Jonson, who has left on record his estimate of their influence and character in the dedication of his comedy of Every Man out of his Humour, which he inscribed “To the noblest nurseries of humanity and liberty in the kingdom, the Inns of Court.” To characterize a law-school as the nursery of sound learning and civil liberty is indeed a highly-wrought eulogium of the legal profession,—a praise, however, which its history shows to have been well deserved. In the Inns of Chancery the younger students of the law were usually placed, “learning and studying,” says Fortescue, “the originals, and as it were the elements, of the law; who profiting therein, as they grew to ripeness, so were they admitted into the greater inns of the same study, called the Inns of Court.”
The word “Inns” was anciently used to denote town-houses, in which the nobility and gentry resided when they were in attendance at court; and it is frequently employed by the old poets to denote a spacious and elegant mansion. The Inns of Court were in old French termed hostells. In the court-records in Latin they are called hospitia; while diversoria is the name applied to public lodging-houses, which are now commonly known as inns. The buildings originally purchased for the purposes of these legal societies, having been at the time private residences, still retained in their new use the ancient names by which they were designated. The Middle and Inner Temples were formerly dwellings of the Knights Templars; Lincoln’s and Gray’s Inn anciently belonged to the Earls of Lincoln and Gray. So the names of the several Inns of Chancery are taken from the names of their original proprietors,—except New Inn, Staple Inn, which belonged to the Merchants of the Staple, and Lion Inn, which was a common tavern, with the sign of the lion.
There can be no doubt that there was originally provided in these schools some system of instruction for the students. Competent persons, termed readers, were appointed to deliver public lectures. Such men as More, Coke, and Holt were chosen as readers. They fell into disuse, however; and before the time of Blackstone the student at the Inns was left to his own discretion, and was even called to the bar, after a set time, without any examination as to his qualification for the exercise of his profession. According to the regulations at that time, and with some modification still existing, every man was entitled to be called to the bar who had paid the fees accustomed and due to the Inn at which he had entered, and had kept twelve terms. A term was kept in a very easy and pleasant way indeed, by being present at a certain number of dinners in common—generally five in each term—in presence of the benchers. He must have gone nine times through a certain ceremony which is called performing an exercise. Exercises were performed thus. The student was furnished by the steward of the society with a piece of paper, on which was supposed to be written an argument on some point of law, but, owing to the negligence of successive copyists, the writing came at last to consist of a piece of legal jargon wholly unintelligible. When, after-dinner, grace had been said, the student advanced to the barristers’ table and commenced reading from this paper; upon which one of the barristers present made him a slight bow, took the paper from him and told him that it was quite sufficient. Throwing aside this piece of antiquated and ridiculous mummery, we may say, then, that practically all that was required as a qualification for the English bar was that the applicant had eaten sixty dinners at certain intervals.
We have not been informed under whose advice or by whose direction Blackstone prosecuted his course of legal studies in the Middle Temple. He has himself depicted in a very lively manner the dangers and difficulties of such a course:—“We may appeal to the experience of every sensible lawyer, whether any thing can be more hazardous or discouraging than the usual entrance on the study of the law. A raw and inexperienced youth, in the most dangerous season of life, is transplanted on a sudden into the midst of allurements to pleasure, without any restraint or check but what his own prudence can suggest; with no public direction in what course to pursue his inquiries, no private assistance to remove the distresses and difficulties which will always embarrass a beginner. In this situation, he is expected to sequester himself from the world, and, by a tedious, lonely process, to extract the theory of law from a mass of undigested learning; or else, by an assiduous attendance on the courts, to pick up theory and practice together sufficient to qualify him for the ordinary run of business.”
We may conjecture that Blackstone began with Finch, and then proceeded to set upon the rough mines of legal treasure to be found in Coke upon Littleton, as well as to look into Bracton, Glanville, Fleta, and the Reports. It was somewhat better than when, not quite two centuries before, in 1652, Sir Henry Spelman so graphically described it as linguam peregrinam, aïalectum barbarum, methodum inconcinnum, molem non ingentem solum sed perpetuis humeris sustinendam.
The young student, whose career we are to sketch, little thought that, in the design of Providence, he was the engineer selected to make a new road through this wild and almost impassable country, and that he would do so with so much skill and judgment, and at the same time adorn its sides and environs with so green and rich a landscape, as to convert the journey from a wearisome toil to an attractive pleasure. For almost a century the Commentaries have been the first book of the student of law; and, whatever criticisms have been or may be made upon their learning or accuracy, the fact is, that no lawyer fails to make them a part of his course of study, sooner or later.
At Oxford he had been a diligent student. Before he was twenty, he had compiled a treatise on the Elements of Architecture, with plans and drawings from his own pen. He devoted a large portion of his time to elegant literature, and had cultivated to a considerable extent the art of poetry. Even at school he had shown poetic ability by some verses on Milton, for which he was rewarded with a gold medal. Upon betaking himself to the study of the law, he appears to have considered it necessary to abandon this employment. He wrote “The Lawyer’s Farewell to his Muse,” which was afterwards printed in Dodsley’s Miscellanies,—a poem exhibiting a cultivated taste and a chastened fancy, as well as great command of language. Afterwards, in 1751, he wrote an elegy on the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, which was published in the Oxford Collection. Judging from these pieces, it is, perhaps, not a subject of regret that he relinquished poetry; nor are we tempted to exclaim, as Pope did of Lord Mansfield,—
It has, however, been well remarked that “to his early predilection for poetry we may reasonably attribute the formation of that exquisite style and method with which he afterwards embellished and illustrated the law. For nothing so well can teach us that propriety of expression, that felicity of illustration, and that symmetry of method by which the most abstruse subject may be rendered clear and delightful, as the study of the works of those who may be styled the masters of language.” It is not uncommon to hear the expression, “The law is a jealous mistress.” It is true that this profession, like all others, demands of those who would succeed in it an earnest and entire devotion. It must be the main business of the student: he must love it. But it is not inconsistent with all this that he should still pursue his classical reading,—that he should maintain a constant acquaintance and familiarity with those authors in every tongue who, by the unanimous award of time, are the standards of taste and eloquence. A man may become a first rate practitioner or scrivener by devoting himself exclusively to professional reading, and, if money be his whole object, with great success; but if his aim be—as it ought to be—higher, then liberal studies will be found as necessary to make the truly great and accomplished lawyer as any other. It is not the mere gathering of flowers in devious by-paths, but of rich and nourishing fruit, which gives tone and vigour to the moral and intellectual man. The old partition of time, which even Lord Coke has sanctioned by his authority, “for the good spending of the day,” assigned six hours of the twenty-four to the “sacred muses:”—
Previously to Blackstone’s call to the bar, he had removed from Pembroke to All-Souls, and in June, 1744, had become a fellow of the latter college. All-Souls was celebrated for lawyers; and Lord Northington and Chief-Justice Willes were fellows of this college. In 1745, he graduated Bachelor of Civil Law.
After his admission to the bar, he was condemned, like the great majority of all who adopt this profession, to undergo a long and trying novitiate. From 1746 to 1760, he only reports himself to have been engaged in two cases, and those so unimportant that they are not mentioned in any other report-book. Happy are those who adopt as their motto Ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito,—who seize this as the favourable time for close observation of men and things, as well as for an extended and thorough course of professional reading,—remembering that the mower loses no time while he is whetting his scythe,—but being careful not to sink into the mere recluse and book-worm. Our author appears to have attempted this happy middle way; but, at the same time, hope so long deferred made his heart sick; and it has been noticed that though from his call to the bar until Michaelmas Term, 1750, he regularly attended the court of King’s Bench and took notes of cases, his diligence relaxed, and latterly the only cases noted are those concerning the universities, in whose affairs he always took an especial interest. He made the acquaintance, however, and secured the friendship, during this time, of some of the most eminent men in the profession, who appear to have discovered in him that merit which he only wanted the opportunity to display to all. One of these was William Murray, afterwards Earl of Mansfield. Upon a vacancy in the professorship of Civil Law in the University of Oxford, Mr. Murray introduced Mr. Blackstone to the Duke of Newcastle, then Chancellor of the University and warmly recommended him as entirely able to fill the vacant chair. For his grace, however, this was not enough, unless he could rely on his support in favour of the administration. To ascertain the political principles of Blackstone, he said to him, “Sir, I can rely upon the judgment of your friend Mr. Murray as to your giving law-lectures in a style most beneficial to the students; and I dare say I may safely rely on you, whenever any thing in the political nemisphere is agitated in the university, that you will exert yourself in our behalf.” The answer was, “Your grace may be assured that I will discharge my duty in giving law-lectures to the best of my poor ability.” “Ay, ay,” replied his grace, “and your duty in the other branch, too.” Mr. Blackstone coolly bowed; and a few days after Dr. Jenner was appointed professor.
Mr. Blackstone passed much of his time in Oxford, and took an active interest in the affairs of the university. He was elected bursar, or treasurer, of his college. Finding the muniments in a confused state, with considerable research and labour he made a new arrangement of them. He drew up a dissertation upon the method of keeping the accounts, with a view to render them more simple and intelligible,—a copy of which is still preserved, for the benefit of his successors in the bursarship. He took a lively interest in the Codrington Library, exerted himself actively to secure the completion of the building, and formed a new arrangement and classification of the books. In May, 1749, as a small reward for his services, and to afford him further opportunities of advancing the interests of the college, he was appointed Steward of their Manors. In the same year, on the resignation of his uncle, Seymour Richmond, Esq., he was elected recorder of the borough of Wallingford, in Berkshire, and received the king’s approbation on the 30th of May. On the 26th of April, 1750, he commenced Doctor of Civil Law, and thereby became a member of the convocation. About this time he published An Essay on Collateral Consanguinity. The design of the work was to attack the claims of those who, on the ground of kindred with Archbishop Chichele, the founder of All-Souls, asserted a right of being elected in preference to all others into that society. He undertook to prove that as the archbishop, who by the canons could not lawfully marry, never had any legitimate lineal descendants, the great lapse of time since his death, by the rules both of the civil and canon law, had put an end to all collateral relationship,—or, in other words, that all mankind might be presumed equally akin to the founder. The college acted on this doctrine; but Archbishop Secker, in 1762, as visitor, reversed their decision. Secker’s successor, Archbishop Cornwallis, chose Blackstone one of his assessors, and with his assistance, and that of Dr. Hay, an eminent civilian, formed a regulation which, without entirely setting aside all claims founded on the express words of the college-statutes, limited the number of the founder’s kin who could be admitted,—a regulation which in a great measure removed the inconvenience and gave satisfaction on all sides.
It was about the year 1750 that Blackstone first began to plan his Lectures on the Laws of England. He despaired of success at the bar, and determined to confine himself to his fellowship and an academical life, continuing the practice of his profession as provincial counsel. In Michaelmas Term, 1753, he delivered his first course at Oxford. Whether from the novelty of the subject or the reputation of the lecturer, his first course was numerously attended. Nor did the interest flag. Such was the elegance of style and popular character of the course, that attendance soon became the fashion. In 1754, he found it worth while, from the number attending, to publish his Analysis of the Laws of England, for the use of his hearers. It is founded on a similar work by Sir Matthew Hale, with some alterations, not generally regarded as improvements.
In July, 1755, he was appointed one of the delegates of the Clarendon Press. He entered upon this office with that determination to do his whole duty which characterized him in every other situation in which he was placed. He found that abuses had crept into that trust; and, in order to obtain a clearer insight into the matter, and to be better qualified to enter upon the task of correcting them, he made himself master of the mechanical art of printing. He proposed a valuable reform, which he had the pleasure of seeing successfully put in execution, much to the advantage of the university. He wrote a small tract on the Management of the University Press, which he left for the use of his successors in that office. In 1757, he was elected by the surviving visitors of Michel’s new foundation in Queen’s College into that body. There had been a long dispute between the members of the old and the new foundation. Here again he exerted himself successfully; and principally through his instrumentality this donation became a valuable acquisition to the college, as well as an ornament to the university, by the completion of that handsome pile of buildings towards the High Street which for many years had been little better than a confused heap of ruins. Dr. Blackstone drew up a body of statutes for the regulation of the endowment, which was confirmed by Act of Parliament in the year 1769.
Mr. Viner having bequeathed to the University of Oxford a considerable sum of money and the copyright of his Abridgment of Law, for the purpose of instituting a professorship of Common Law, with fellowships and scholarships, Dr. Blackstone was, on the 20th of October, 1758, unanimously elected first Vinerian Professor. He lost no time in entering upon his duties, and on the 25th of the same month delivered his Introductory Lecture on the Study of the Law,—certainly, if no sketch had previously existed, a most remarkable composition to be prepared in so short a period of time. At the request of the Vice-Chancellor and heads of houses, he published this introductory, and afterwards prefixed it to his Commentaries. His lectures soon became celebrated throughout the kingdom. He was requested to read them to the Prince of Wales, (afterwards George III.;) but, being at that time engaged with a numerous class of pupils at Oxford, whom he did not think it right to leave, he declined the honour. However, he transmitted copies for the prince’s perusal, who in return sent him a handsome present.
In 1756, he had resumed his attendance at Westminster, coming up to town every winter and showing himself in court each Michaelmas and Hilary Term,—for the purpose, doubtless, of making himself known. He does not record, however, that he was engaged in any cause. In June, 1759, he resigned his offices of Assessor in the Vice-Chancellor’s Court and Steward of All-Souls Manors, and purchased chambers in the Temple, where he came to reside. He did not appear in court until Trinity Term, 1760; nor, indeed, does it seem that he ever acquired much celebrity as an advocate. His principal practice was as a chamber counsel. That he was commanding notice and regard in the profession appears from the fact that Lord Chief-Justice Willes and Mr. Justice Bathurst invited him to take the coif, which he declined,—probably from economical reasons. The expense accompanying that honour was considerable; and in that which Blackstone felt to be more his professional line, the advantages and privileges of the order—principally then the monopoly of the practice at the bar of the Common Pleas—were not sufficient to counterbalance its expense and inconvenience. In the same year (1759) he published two small pieces relative to the university: the one entitled Reflections on the Opinions of Messrs. Pratt, Morton, and Wilbraham, relating to Lord Litchfield’s Disqualification, who was then a candidate for the chancellorship; the other, A Case for the Opinion of Counsel on the Right of the University to make New Statutes. In November, 1759, he published a new edition of the Great Charter and Charter of the Forest, and also a tract On the Law of Descents in Fee-Simple. As to the former, while the mechanical execution reflected great honour on the author as the principal reformer of the Clarendon Press, from which no volume had ever before issued equal in beauty to this, the work itself added materially to his former reputation as a lawyer and antiquary. It led him, however, into an unpleasant controversy with Dr. Lyttelton, Dean of Exeter, afterwards Bishop of Carlisle, in regard to the authenticity of an ancient roll, containing the Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest, belonging to Lord Lyttelton, which, however, Blackstone did not consider an original.
The first cause of any interest which he argued was that of Robinson vs. Bland, in Trinity Term, 1760. The question was whether a gaming-debt, contracted in France could be recovered in England. It is to be found reported 1 W. Blacks. 234, 256; 2 Burr. 1077. His argument is certainly elaborate and ingenious. The next cause in which he appears to have been engaged was, in a legal point of view, decidedly the most interesting that ever came before the courts,—namely, the common-law right of literary property. It was the case of Tonson vs. Collins, 1 Sir W. Blacks. 301, 321. Blackstone’s admirable argument is to be found at p. 321. After this, it would be tedious and uninteresting to trace his connection with other important cases at the bar. In 1761, the appointment of Chief-Justice of the Common Pleas for Ireland was offered to him, but declined. In March of the same year, he was returned to Parliament for Hindon, in Wiltshire, and on May 6th received a patent of precedence. On the 5th May, 1761, he married the daughter of James Clitherow, Esq., of Boston House, in the county of Middlesex. Having by this marriage vacated his fellowship of All-Souls, he was on the 28th of July, 1761, appointed Principal of New Inn Hall, by the Earl of Westmoreland, then Chancellor of Oxford. This appointment, besides the rank it gave him in the university, assured him an agreeable residence during the delivery of his lectures. In 1762, he collected and republished several of his pieces, under the title of Law Tracts, in two volumes octavo. In 1763, he was appointed Solicitor-General to the Queen, and elected about the same time a Bencher of the Middle Temple. In 1765 appeared the first volume of the Commentaries,—twelve years after the delivery of his original lectures; and the other three volumes were published in the course of the four succeeding years.
In 1766, he resigned the Vinerian professorship, and at the same time the principality of New Inn Hall. He had hoped that the professorship might be permanently connected with some college or hall, as Mr. Viner had contemplated, and thus a permanent settlement in Oxford be rendered agreeable. But this plan was rejected in convocation, and thus his views of a lasting settlement disappointed.
In 1768, he was returned to Parliament for the borough of Westbury, in Wiltshire, and took part in the debates relative to the election of John Wilkes, when his adversaries observed and pointed out an inconsistency between his position and the doctrine laid down in his Commentaries on the subject. He published a pamphlet on the subject, which drew upon him severe sarcasms from the author of Junius. In the same year Dr. Priestley animadverted on his positions in the Commentaries relative to offences against the doctrine of the Established Church, and Dr. Furneaux addressed him some letters on his Exposition of the Toleration Act. He published an answer to Dr. Priestley, and in subsequent editions modified the passages in which errors and inaccuracies had been pointed out.
He was offered the Solicitor-Generalship by Lord North in January, 1770, on the resignation of Dunning. He accepted, however, the position of a Judge of the Common Pleas, on the resignation of Mr. Justice Clive. He was of course called to the degree of Sergeant, and gave rings with the motto “Secundis dubiisque rectus.” “But, Mr. Justice Yates being desirous to retire” (to use Blackstone’s own words) “into the court of Common Pleas, I consented to exchange with him; and accordingly (February 16th) I kissed his majesty’s hand on being appointed a Judge of the King’s Bench, and received the honour of knighthood.” Sir Joseph Yates did not long survive his retirement; for on the Whit-Sunday following he was taken ill at church, and died on Thursday following, “to the great loss of the public, and the court of Common Pleas in particular, wherein he sat one term only.” On this event Sir William Blackstone likewise “retired into the court of Common Pleas,” which, says Burrow, “he was always understood to have in view whenever opportunity offered.”
Sir William Blackstone maintained the reputation he had previously acquired by his performance of his duties on the bench. There are several very elaborate judgments of his, in his own reports, upon important and difficult questions, which display his ability and research to great advantage. The court of Common Pleas during the time of Blackstone differed in opinion only upon two cases. In both he dissented. The first was Scott vs. Shepherd, (2 W. Bl. 892,) relative to the distinction between actions of trespass and on the case; the other, Goodright dem. Rolfe vs. Harwood, (2 W. Bl. 937,) in which the judgment of the Common Pleas was unanimously reversed by the King’s Bench, and that reversal confirmed by the House of Lords, upon the opinions of the Barons of the Exchequer. The opinion of Sir William Blackstone in the celebrated case of Perrin vs. Blake (1 W. Bl. 672) has been always highly esteemed as a most ingenious and able view of the knotty question which arose in that case, and has attained a very just celebrity. It may well be doubted whether Mr. Roscoe is sustained by the facts in the opinion which he has so confidently expressed,—that “after the publication of the Commentaries the legal acquirements of Blackstone rather declined than advanced.”
He had purchased shortly after his marriage a villa, called Priory Place, in Wallingford. He exerted himself, with his accustomed activity, in the promotion of every plan for the improvement of his neighbourhood, not only substantially in the opening of roads and building of bridges, but ornamentally in the rebuilding of that handsome fabric, St. Peter’s Church. Such were his employments at home. In London, besides the duties of his public post, he was generally engaged in some scheme of public utility. In the latter part of his life he devoted much time to the consideration of the subject of prison-discipline. He exerted himself, in conjunction with John Howard, to procure an Act of Parliament for the establishment of Penitentiary Houses near London, the objects of which should be “to seclude the criminals from their former associates; to separate those of whom hopes might be entertained from those who were desperate; to teach them useful trades; to accustom them to habits of industry; to give them religious instruction; and to provide them with a recommendation to the world, and the means of obtaining an honest livelihood after the expiration of the term of their imprisonment.” The statute 19 Geo. III. c. 74 was accordingly passed; and, though it did not produce all the beneficial effects that were expected from it, it led the way to more just and rational views of prison-discipline. In one of his charges to a grand jury, he referred to the establishment of penitentiaries under this act in the following terms:—“In these houses the convicts are to be separately confined during the intervals of their labours, debarred from all incentives to debauchery, instructed in religion and morality, and forced to work for the benefit of the public. Imagination cannot figure to itself a species of punishment in which terror, benevolence, and reformation are more happily blended together. What can be more dreadful to the riotous, the libertine, the voluptuous, the idle delinquent, than solitude, confinement, sobriety, and constant labour? Yet what can be more truly beneficial? Solitude will awaken reflection, confinement will banish temptation, sobriety will restore vigour, and labour will beget a habit of honest industry; while the aid of a religious instructor may implant new principles in his heart, and, when the date of his punishment is expired, will conduce both to his temporal and eternal welfare. Such a prospect as this is surely well worth the trouble of an experiment.”
He indulged, also, in literary labours to some extent. The only fruits of these, however, are “An Account of the Dispute between Addison and Pope,” communicated to Dr. Kippis, and by him published in the “Biographia Britannica,” in the Life of Addison; and some notes upon Shakspeare, which are published in Malone’s edition of 1780, marked by the final letter of his name.
He did not, however, long continue to enjoy this life of quiet usefulness, honour, and happiness. Sedentary employments, such as those in which he delighted, are never conducive to health. As he advanced in age, he became corpulent, and was occasionally visited by gout, dropsy, and vertigo. About Christmas, 1779, he was seized with a violent shortness of breath, which his physicians attributed to his dropsical habit and to water on the chest; and their prescriptions gave him a temporary relief. He was able to come to town to attend Hilary Term,—when he was again attacked in a more formidable shape, chiefly in his head, which induced a drowsiness and stupor that baffled all the skill of his medical attendants. After lying in a state of insensibility for several days, he expired at his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, on the 14th of February, 1780, being in the fifty-seventh year of his age. He was buried at St. Peter’s Church, Wallingford,—his friend Dr. Barrington, Bishop of Llandaff, officiating at his funeral.
He had nine children, of whom seven survived him. Henry Blackstone, the reporter, was his nephew, and died from the effects of over-exertion in his profession. Of his sons, James enjoyed nearly the same university preferments as his father: he was Fellow of All-Souls, Principal of New Inn Hall, Vinerian Professor, Deputy High Steward, and Assessor in the Vice-Chancellor’s Courts. He died in 1831.
The notes of decisions which he had collected while at the bar and on the bench, and which he had himself prepared for the press, were published after his death, in two volumes folio, agreeably to a direction in his will. They seem to be only such as he had selected out of many from his rough notes, either as being of a more interesting nature, or as containing some essential point of law or practice, or perhaps such only (particularly for the first few years) as he had taken the most accurate notes of. They were published under the superintendence of his executor and brother-in-law, James Clitherow, Esq., prefaced by a sketch of his life, from which the facts contained in this memoir have been principally taken.
“Having now given,” says Mr. Clitherow, “a faithful, and, it is hoped, not too prolix, a detail of the life of this great man, from his cradle to his grave, it will be expected that it should be followed by the outlines at least of his character. A hard task for the pen of a friend! To do justice to the merits of such a character, without incurring the imputation of flattery, is as difficult as to touch on its imperfections (and such the most perfect human characters have) with truth and delicacy.
“In his public line of life he approved himself an able, upright, impartial judge, perfectly acquainted with the laws of his country and making them the invariable rule of his conduct. As a senator, he was averse to party violence and moderate in his sentiments. Not only in Parliament, but at all times and on all occasions, he was a firm supporter of the true principles of our happy Constitution in Church and State,—on the real merits of which few men were so well qualified to decide. He was ever an active and judicious promoter of whatever he thought useful or advantageous to the public in general, or to any particular society or neighbourhood he was connected with; and, having not only a sound judgment, but the clearest ideas and the most analytical head that any man perhaps was ever blessed with, these qualifications, joined to an unremitting perseverance in pursuing whatever he thought right, enabled him to carry many beneficial plans into execution, which probably would have failed if they had been attempted by other men.
“He was a believer in the great truths of Christianity from a thorough investigation of its evidence. Attached to the Church of England from conviction of its excellence, his principles were those of its genuine members,—enlarged and tolerant. His religion was pure and unaffected, and his attendance on its public duties regular, and those duties always performed with seriousness and devotion.
“His professional abilities need not be dwelt upon. They will be universally acknowledged and admired as long as his works shall be read, or, in other words, as long as the municipal laws of this country shall remain an object of study and practice. And, though his works will only hold forth to future generations his knowledge of the law and his talents as a writer, there was hardly any branch of literature he was unacquainted with. He ever employed much time in reading; and whatever he had read and once digested he never forgot.
“He was an excellent manager of his time; and though so much of it was spent in an application to books and the employment of his pen, yet this was done without the parade or ostentation of being a hard student. It was observed of him, during his residence at college, that his studies never appeared to break in upon the common business of life or the innocent amusements of society,—for the latter of which few men were better calculated, being possessed of the happy faculty of making his own company agreeable and instructive, whilst he enjoyed without reserve the society of others.
“Melancthon himself could not have been more rigid in observing the hour and minute of an appointment. During the years in which he read his lectures at Oxford, it could not be remembered that he had ever kept his audience waiting for him even for a few minutes. As he valued his own time, he was extremely careful not to be instrumental in squandering or trifling away that of others, who he hoped might have as much regard for theirs as he had for his. Indeed, punctuality was in his opinion so much a virtue that he could not bring himself to think perfectly well of any who were notoriously defective in it.
“The virtues of his private character, less conspicuous in their nature and consequently less generally known, endeared him to those he was more intimately connected with and who saw him in the more retired scenes of life. He was, notwithstanding his contracted brow, (owing in a great measure to his being very near-sighted,) a cheerful, agreeable, and facetious companion. He was a faithful friend, an affectionate husband and parent, and a charitable benefactor to the poor,—possessed of generosity without affectation, bounded by prudence and economy. The constant accurate knowledge he had of his income and expenses (the consequence of uncommon regularity in his accounts) enabled him to avoid the opposite extremes of meanness and profusion.
“Being himself strict in the exercise of every public and private duty, he expected the same attention to both in others, and, when disappointed in his expectation, was apt to animadvert with some degree of severity on those who, in his estimate of duty, seemed to deserve it. This rigid sense of obligation, added to a certain irritability of temper derived from nature and increased in his latter years by a strong nervous affection, together with his countenance and figure, conveyed an idea of sternness, which occasioned the heavy but unmerited imputation, among those who did not know him, of ill nature; but he had a heart as benevolent and as feeling as man ever possessed.
“A natural reserve and diffidence, which accompanied him from his earliest youth, and which he could never shake off, appeared to a casual observer though it was only appearance, like pride,—especially after he became a judge, when he thought it his duty to keep strictly up to forms, (which, as he was wont to observe, are now too much laid aside,) and not to lessen the respect due to the dignity and gravity of his office by any outward levity of behaviour.
“In short, it may be said of him as the noble historian (Lord Clarendon) said of Mr. Selden: ‘If he had some infirmities with other men, they were weighed down with wonderful and prodigious abilities and excellencies in the other scale.’ ”
Such is the testimony of a friend and kinsman to the character of Sir William Blackstone. Partial, no doubt, in some respects; but on the whole it bears on its face the marks of an honest effort to tell the truth,—not to conceal what appeared to be unlovely. We may accept it with the more confidence as truthful and reliable. “There may have been,” concludes Mr. Welsby, (Lives of Eminent English Judges,) “more shining characters, of whom we read with deeper interest; but there have been few men more useful in their sphere, few whose example we can contemplate more profitably, few who better realized the wish so happily expressed by himself:—
Of the Commentaries as an Institute of Legal Education, very different opinions have been expressed; but, with one or two exceptions, there is a concurrent admiration of their style and method. When the illustrious contemporary of Blackstone—Lord Mansfield—was asked to point out the books proper for the perusal of a student of the law, that great man bore this emphatic testimony to their value:—“Till of late I could never with any satisfaction to myself answer that question; but since the publication of Mr. Blackstone’s Commentaries I can never be at a loss. There your son will find analytical reasoning, diffused in a pleasing and perspicuous style. There he may imbibe imperceptibly the first principles on which our excellent laws are founded; and there he may become acquainted with an uncouth crabbed author, Coke upon Littleton, who has disappointed many a tyro, but who cannot fail to please in a modern dress.” One of his most stern and unrelenting critics,—Jeremy Bentham,—himself a jurist, and fundamentally opposed to Blackstone in his general views and principles of government, thus speaks of the style in which the Commentaries were written:—“He it is who first of all institutional writers has taught jurisprudence to speak the language of the scholar and the gentleman, put a polish upon that rugged science, cleansed her from the dust and cobwebs of the office, and, if he has not enriched her with that precision which is drawn only from the sterling treasury of the sciences, has decked her out to advantage from the toilet of classic erudition, enlivened her with metaphors and allusions, and sent her abroad in some measure to instruct, and in still greater measure to entertain, the most miscellaneous and even the most fastidious societies. The merit to which, as much perhaps as to any, this work stands indebted, is the enchanting harmony of its numbers.” “It is easy,” says Mr. Justice Coleridge, “to point out their faults; and their general merits of lucid order, sound and clear exposition, and a style almost faultless in its kind, are also easily perceived and universally acknowledged; but it requires perhaps the study necessarily imposed upon an editor to understand fully the whole extent of praise to which the author is entitled: his materials should be seen in their crude and scattered state; the controversies examined, of which the result only is shortly given; what he has rejected, what he has forborne to say, should be known before his learning, judgment, taste, and, above all, his total want of self-display, can be justly appreciated.” Lord Avonmore has said, “He it was who first gave to the law the air of a science. He found it a skeleton, and clothed it with life, colour, and complexion: he embraced the cold statue, and by his touch it grew into youth, health, and beauty.” Sir William Jones, one of the most accomplished scholars the legal profession can boast of having produced, and an ornament not to that profession alone, but to human nature, gives his opinion in these words:—“His Commentaries are the most correct and beautiful outline that ever was exhibited of any human science; but they alone will no more form a lawyer than a general map of the world, how accurately and elegantly soever it may be delineated, will make a geographer. If, indeed, all the titles which he professed only to sketch in elementary discourses were filled up with exactness and perspicuity, Englishmen might hope at length to possess a digest of their laws which would leave but little room for controversy except in cases depending upon their particular circumstances,—a work which every lover of humanity and peace must anxiously wish to see accomplished.”
To these many similar authorities might be added; but we may be allowed to subjoin the testimony of the distinguished American Commentator Chancellor Kent:—“He [Blackstone] is justly placed at the head of all the modern writers who treat of the general elementary principles of law. By the excellence of his arrangement, the variety of his learning, the justness of his taste, and the purity and elegance of his style, he communicated to those subjects, which were harsh and forbidding in the pages of Coke, the attraction of a liberal science and the embellishments of polite literature. The second and third volumes of the Commentaries are to be thoroughly studied and accurately understood. What is obsolete is necessary to illustrate that which remains in use; and the greater part of the matter in these volumes is law at this day and on this side of the Atlantic.”
In opposition to this stand Mr. Ritso and Mr. Austin, the former in his curious and useful Introduction to the Study of Coke upon Littleton, and the latter in his Outlines of Lectures on the Province of Jurisprudence. They deny to Sir William Blackstone all merit as an institutional writer, and even condemn his style, as unfitted to the subject and meretricious. His manner, says Mr. Austin, “is not the manner of those classical Roman jurists, who are always models of expression, though their meaning be never so faulty. It differs from their unaffected, yet apt and nervous, style, as the tawdry and flimsy dress of a milliner’s doll from the graceful and imposing nakedness of a Grecian statue.” Mr. Ritso is an idolater of Lord Coke, and unwilling that any book should share in the honours of the Institutes, much less displace it as a first book in the hands of the professional student. Mr. Austin is an enthusiastic Benthamite. His associations have been altogether with codes and systems. What other arrangement he would have made of the Common Law of England than that followed by Blackstone and Hale can only be conjectured; but the probability is that it would not have been adapted to the science as it practically existed, and would have been inconvenient because artificial. The Common Law is not a strait canal cut by the art of civil engineers, but a mighty river, its head lost in the sands of antiquity, which has sought and made its own channel, and that the most natural and the best, though occasionally requiring to be improved by legislative dams and embankments.
It is not difficult to arrive at a just conclusion between these conflicting opinions. Blackstone is not an authority in the law in the same sense in which Littleton or his commentator Lord Coke is. He has fallen into some errors and inaccuracies,—not, however, so many nor so important that the student ought to have his confidence in it as an Institute at all impaired. In fact, these errors and inaccuracies have been for the most part pointed out and corrected in the modern editions. There is certainly truth in the charge brought against Blackstone of overweening admiration of the British Constitution; but that is not likely to mislead an American student. We can sympathize with his panegyric of the free spirit and general justice of the Common Law. We claim it as our birthright and boast of it as the substratum of our own jurisprudence. As an elementary book, however, it may be enough to say that the whole body of American lawyers and advocates, with very few exceptions, since the Revolution, have drawn their first lessons in jurisprudence from the pages of Blackstone’s Commentaries; and no more modern work has succeeded as yet in superseding it.
Last modified April 13, 2016