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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Nolan, "Sir William Blackstone And The New American Republic: A Study Of Intellectual Impact", 738, 51 New York University Law Review 731 (1976).
This book focuses on six men - Thomas Tyrwhitt, editor of Chaucer; George Tollet, country gentleman; Sir William Blackstone, distinguished lawyer; Thomas Holt White, retired ironmonger; Samuel Henley, translator of Vathek; and Francis Douce, Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum - who provided more than 1300 notes, some of them extended discussions of passages in the plays of the Renaissance dramatist.
Thomas Tyrwhitt was a creditable editor of Chaucer, Sir William Blackstone was Solicitor-General and author of an authoritative legal text, Samuel Henley translated Vathek, and Francis Douce was one of England's most redoubtable collectors of books for a public library (as well as consorting with political radicals, which this book never mentions).
The decisions went all the way to the top, Wilkerson says, testifying that his meetings with Colin Powell revealed that President Bush "was involved in all of the Guantanamo decision making." Cheney's philosophy could be accurately summed up as the inversion of Sir William Blackstone's dictum, "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer." Blackstone, the British Enlightenment-era author and common-law scholar, was a key influence on the U.S.
To help answer that question and address the focus of this year's Oxford Round Table, The Influence of Sir William Blackstone on Business and American Education, I would suggest that we concentrate on principles as opposed to people, or perhaps better stated, on individuals who practice principles of a higher order, and should be recognized as true statesman, whether in business, government or education.
Sir William Blackstone underlined this cardinal rule of interpretation in his magisterial Commentaries on the Laws of England.
By the time of Sir William Blackstone in the mid-eighteenth century -- after the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, and on the eve of American independence -- the supremacy of parliament was firmly established.
Sir William Blackstone, English jurist and law professor (1723-1780), wrote in his famous Commentaries on the English Common Law that "no enactment of man can be considered law if it does not accord with the law of God."
Relatively few would have openly disagreed with the view of homosexuality expressed in Sir William Blackstone's famous Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765).
In the preamble, it unequivocally states: "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law." Sir William Blackstone likewise held in his authoritative Commentaries on the Laws of England that the common law derives its moral authority from the natural law.