Sir William Blackstone (originally pronounced Blexstun) (10 July 1723 – 14 February 1780) was an English jurist and professor who produced the historical and analytic treatise on the common law called Commentaries on the Laws of England, first published in four volumes over 1765–1769. It had an extraordinary success, reportedly bringing the author £14,000, and still remains an important source on classical views of the common law and its principles.
Blackstone was born in Cheapside in 1723, the posthumous son of a London silk mercer. He received his education at Charterhouse School and at Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1743 he became a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and he was called to the bar as a barrister at the Middle Temple in 1746. After practising in the courts of Westminster for several years, without great success, he returned to Oxford in 1758 when another lawyer, Charles Viner, established an endowed chair at the university for a lecturer in law. Viner's endowed chair became known as the Vinerian professorship, and it exists to the present day. At this time, he was appointed Principal of New Inn Hall (now St. Peter's College, Oxford). Blackstone lived at Castle Priory in Wallingford, and is buried at St Peter's Church in the town.
In addition to the Commentaries, Blackstone published treatises on Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests. In 1761 he won election as a Member of Parliament for Hindon and "took silk" as a king's counsel. He also wrote some poetry.
Blackstone and his work occasionally appear in literature. For example, Blackstone receives mention in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. A passing reference to the Commentaries is also to be found in Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail. A bust of Blackstone is a typical ornament of a lawyer's office in early Perry Mason novels, and in Anatomy of a Murder. Blackstone's Commentaries are also mentioned in Charles Portis's comic novel, The Dog of the South. It is also mentioned in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as the tool used to teach Calpurnia, a black woman, how to read. Blackstone wrote his books on common law shortly before the United States Constitution was written. Many terms and phrases used by the framers were derived from Blackstone's works.
U.S. courts frequently quote Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England as the definitive pre-Revolutionary War source of common law; in particular, the United States Supreme Court quotes from Blackstone's work whenever they wish to engage in historical discussion that goes back that far, or further (for example, when discussing the intent of the Framers of the Constitution). His work has been used most forcefully as of late by Justice Clarence Thomas. U.S. and other common law courts mention with strong approval Blackstone's formulation also known as Blackstone's ratio popularly stated as "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer" — although he did not first express the principle.
Blackstone's work was more often synthetic than original, but his writing was organized, clear, and dignified, which brings his great work within the category of general literature. He also had a turn for neat and polished verse, of which he gave proof in The Lawyer's Farewell to his Muse.
Blackstone and Property JurisprudenceEdit
Blackstone's characterization of property rights as "sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe," has often been quoted in judicial opinions and secondary legal literature as the dominant Western concept of property. In spite of the frequency with which this conception is quoted, however, the phrase is often presented without taking into account the greater context of Blackstone's thought on the subject of property. Blackstone likely offered the statement as a rhetorical flourish to begin his discussion, given that even in his age, individual property rights were not sole and absolute. Property owners must rely on the enforcement powers of the state, in any event, for the realization of their rights.
Blackstone and anti-CatholicismEdit
- As to papists, what has been said of the Protestant dissenters would hold equally strong for a general toleration of them; provided their separation was founded only upon difference of opinion in religion, and their principles did not also extend to a subversion of the civil government. If once they could be brought to renounce the supremacy of the pope, they might quietly enjoy their seven sacraments, their purgatory, and auricular confession; their worship of reliques and images; nay even their transubstantiation. But while they acknowledge a foreign power, superior to the sovereignty of the kingdom, they cannot complain if the laws of that kingdom will not treat them upon the footing of good subjects.
- — Bl. Comm. IV, c.4 ss. iii.2, p. *54
- Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, from the Avalon Project at Yale Law School
- A Biography of William Blackstone (1723 - 1780)
- Royal Berkshire History: Sir William Blackstone
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