Blackstone's Commentaries

Blackstone's Commentaries

A series of lectures delivered by the English jurist Sir William Blackstone at Oxford in 1753 and published as Commentaries on the Laws of England in four volumes between 1765 and 1769, which systematized and clarified the amorphous body of English Law.

The Commentaries are the first attempt to state the entire corpus of the Common Law. They were acclaimed internationally and their precepts were applied to the study and Practice of Law in England and the United States. They exerted a tremendous influence on the American bar, both because of their intrinsic value and because they were the only treatises readily available during that period of U.S. history. The Commentaries were the primary reference tools for lawyers and judges until the nineteenth century because the appellate courts in America did not regularly submit their opinions for publication in bound volumes. Although there were court reporters, their records of decisions were incomplete and sporadic; and few attorneys could afford a comprehensive library.

Since the common law of England was incorporated into the legal systems of the colonies, Blackstone's summaries rendered the legal system accessible to the entire educated class of the colonies. Dissatisfaction with the common-law restrictions on Freedom of Speech and the press was an important aspect of the burgeoning resentment of English rule; and the knowledge and intellectual stimulation provided by Blackstone thereby played a role in causing the American Revolution. Blackstone's books, which were periodically updated by American editors, constituted a major source of law for approximately fifty years after the American Revolution.

The Commentaries are viewed as the most comprehensive summary of the entire body of English law ever compiled by a single author. Their clarity, sophistication, and formality have caused them to be highly regarded. While studying to be a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln reportedly read Blackstone by candlelight.

Blackstone did have detractors, however, most notably Thomas Jefferson and Jeremy Bentham, the English Utilitarian philosopher. Jefferson believed that Blackstone and his followers were "Tories" and that he was a negative influence on America in the sense that more attention needed to be devoted to "whiggism" or "republicanism." Bentham criticized Blackstone for his perception that English law needed no improvement and for his imprecise analysis of the historical and social factors underlying systems of justice.

Although the Commentaries might seem antiquated by current standards, Blackstone's work represented a tremendous advance in the study of law and played a significant role in the development of the American legal system.

References in periodicals archive ?
(51) First, the types of offenses that they discussed as not being protected by the free exercise of religion--robbery, theft, and other acts of violence or violations of the negative liberty or property interests of others--reflect a limited category of violations of the public peace which largely mirrored the categories of offenses that were described as "against the public peace" in Blackstone's Commentaries. (52) Second, these advocates for religious liberty presupposed limits not only for religion but also for government.
Brookhiser develops Marshall's humanity by first sketching in Marshall's close relationship with his father; it was John's father who set John on a career in the law, homeschooling young John in Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law of England.
Re-Interpreting Blackstone's Commentaries: A Seminal Text in National and International Contexts (reprint, 2014)
Second, Tucker's constitutional writings were appended as essays to a multivolume, densely annotated edition of Blackstone's Commentaries that was never reprinted.
While a complex text to Abraham Lincoln might have been Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, a complete edition of which he found quite literally in the bottom of an old barrel, today's complex text might be all of "LOL GTG TTYL." And speaking of presidents, whereas Woodrow Wilson authored a five-volume History of the American People, the literacy level of some of today's more prominent leaders is enough to make even the most compassionate educator wince and recoil in horror.
The duty to retreat--the belief that one must attempt to flee to safety when assaulted rather than "stand his ground" and defend himself--is born from a misreading of Blackstone's Commentaries. (74) Blackstone divided homicide in self-defense into two categories: "Justifiable Homicide" and "Excusable Homicide." (75)
The best explanation for the shift is that the publication of Blackstone's Commentaries in 1765 caused Otis to change his argument.
But if Bentham generally blasted Blackstone's Commentaries, Bentham's modern successors found just the right brief section of Blackstone to cite: the utilitarian just-so story.(73) This is the very text that Richard Posner's law and economics text cites for the proposition that it has been known "for hundreds of years" that property rights encourage labor and investment.(74) Indeed, the economist Harold Demsetz retells Blackstone's just-so story in a modern version, a version that incidentally appears early in the most popular American property law textbook.(75) Like Blackstone's story, this version describes the invention of property as a response to scarcity.
I am not entirely convinced, however, by Cosgrove's reflections on Duncan Kennedy's famous study of Blackstone's Commentaries. See Duncan Kennedy, The Structure of Blackstone's Commentaries, 28 Buff.
"I did not want it," Abraham Lincoln explained, "but to oblige him I bought it, and paid him half a dollar for it." Among the goods in the barrel, Lincoln discovered Blackstone's Commentaries.
An example of the belief that filial responsibilities are grounded in a notion of reciprocity is found in Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England:
He compiled an American edition of Blackstone's Commentaries (5 v.