Blackstone, Sir William

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Blackstone, Sir William

Sir William Blackstone. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Sir William Blackstone.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The groundwork for U.S. Jurisprudence lies in a four-volume eighteenth-century publication by British legal commentator Sir William Blackstone. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England provided a systematic analysis of English Common Law. Published between 1765 and 1769, the treatise was an exhaustive compilation of Blackstone's Oxford University lectures on law. Commentaries was unprecedented in scope and purpose, and profoundly influenced the development of common law and Legal Education in England and the United States.

Born July 10, 1723, Blackstone was the son of Mary Blackstone and Charles Blackstone, of London. Blackstone's father, a silk merchant, died before Blackstone was born; his mother died while he was a young boy. Raised by an older brother and tutored by an uncle, Blackstone attended Charterhouse and Pembroke College, at Oxford University, where his education included a thorough exposure to mathematics and logic. Blackstone entered All Souls College, Oxford, in 1743, and became a fellow in 1744.

In preparation for a law practice, Blackstone received a Civil Law degree in 1745, and became a barrister in 1746. In 1750, he became a doctor of civil law. One year later, he was selected as an assessor (judge) of Chancellor's Court.

In 1755, after three years of a lusterless law practice, Blackstone decided to devote all of his time to teaching law at Oxford. His first book, published in 1757, was titled An Analysis of the Laws of England. In 1758, Blackstone was named Oxford's Vinerian Professor of English Law, receiving the first chair of common law ever established at the university. Blackstone's lectures were well received, providing students with a comprehensive introduction to the laws of England.

The success of his lectures enhanced Blackstone's career. In 1761 he became a bencher (supervisor and lecturer) at Oxford's Middle Temple. The same year, he was elected to Parliament, where he served for seven years—although, according to most historians, he was not an especially ambitious or effective politician. Also in 1761, Blackstone married Sarah Clitherow, with whom he had nine children.

"It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer."
—Sir William Blackstone

In 1765, Blackstone published the first of his four volumes of Commentaries. The treatise discussed the cases, rules, and legal principles outlined in his popular Oxford lectures. Each volume concentrated on a particular area of law—personal rights, property rights, torts, or Criminal Law. As Blackstone analyzed the laws, he also revealed their relationship to a higher power. Throughout his Commentaries, Blackstone wove the concept of "natural law,"or God's laws imposed on humankind.

Some critics maintain that Blackstone's view of British law was misleading because a logical, cohesive legal system simply did not exist at the time he was writing. Also, they argue that although Blackstone's writing style was graceful, he sometimes treated legal terms loosely. Yet even his harshest critics concede that Blackstone's effort to synthesize English law was indeed impressive, as was the effect of his treatise in his country and beyond.

Blackstone's Commentaries was particularly influential in the United States as the new nation sought to establish its own laws and legal system. Although Blackstone is no longer cited by practicing attorneys—his importance in the United States decreased dramatically during the twentieth century—he remains a revered figure in U.S. law. Over thirty editions of Commentaries have been printed in the United States and England.

In 1770, Blackstone became judge of the Court of Common Pleas and was knighted. He died on February 14, 1780, at age fifty-seven.

Further readings

Carrese, Paul O. 2003. The Cloaking of Power: Montesquieu, Blackstone, and the Rise of Judicial Activism. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Cross-references

Blackstone's Commentaries.

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