I am happy that you are using this web site and hope that you found it useful. Unfortunately, the cost of making this material freely available is increasing, so if you have found the site useful and would like to contribute towards its continuation, I would greatly appreciate it. Click the button to go to Paypal and make a donation.
This biography was written by George Paul McDonnell; it was published in 1885.
Sir William Blackstone, a legal writer and judge, was born in Cheapside, London, on 10 July 1723. He was the posthumous son of Charles Blackstone, who is described as ‘a silkman, and citizen and bowyer of London,’ and who came of a Wiltshire family. His mother, a daughter of Lovelace Bigg of Chilton Foliot in Wiltshire, died before he was twelve years of age, leaving him to the care of his brother, a London surgeon. Through being thus early left an orphan, he was saved, it has been reasonably suggested, from passing through life as a prosperous tradesman. He had already gone to Charterhouse School, and after his mother's death was, on the nomination of Sir Robert Walpole, admitted on the foundation. When he left for Oxford in 1738, he was head of the school; and perhaps from the fact that he gained a gold medal for some verses on Milton, we may gather that his mind had already received its strong literary bent. At Pembroke College, which he entered at the age of fifteen, his studies were chiefly in classical learning. Among his contemporaries was Shenstone the poet; and doubtless at this time were written most of the ‘originals and translations’ which he is said to have afterwards collected in an unpublished volume. From the pieces which can still be traced to him, and which are full of the strained and stilted mannerisms of the period, we can judge that nothing has been lost to English literature by Blackstone's seeking in poetry only a relaxation. In 1741 he entered himself at the Middle Temple, solemnly marking the change in his life by a poem entitled ‘The Lawyer's Farewell to his Muse,’ wherein English law is figured, in the spirit of his Commentaries, as a complex yet harmonious whole.
Of his legal studies we know nothing except from a letter written by him in 1745, in which he describes himself as following the plan sketched out by C. J. Reeve, and as having already finished one book of Littleton without experiencing much difficulty. ‘In my apprehension,’ he says, again anticipating the Commentaries, ‘the learning out of use is as necessary to a beginner as that of every day's practice.’ The vow of exclusive attachment to law was not rigorously kept. Before completing his twentieth year he had written a treatise on the Elements of Architecture, which has never been published, but which was highly spoken of by those to whom it was shown. He became a careful student of Shakespeare; Malone tells us that ‘the notes which he gave me on Shakespeare show him to have been a man of excellent taste and accuracy, and a good critick’. Even verse was not abandoned, though he had to write in secret. His friends particularly admired a poem written by him in 1751 on the death of Frederick, prince of Wales; but it has now little interest except to collectors of literary parallels, who will compare with ‘the cock's shrill clarion’ of Gray's ‘Elegy’ (published in the same year):
The bird of day
'Gan morn's approach with clarion shrill declare.
It appeared under the name of Blackstone's brother-in-law, Clitherow. This interest in literature never left him. Thus in his last years, when he sat on the bench, we find him carefully discussing, as if it were an important legal case, the quarrel between Pope and Addison, and criticising by the light of Pope's letters the account of the quarrel given in Ruffhead's ‘Life.’
He had already been elected a fellow of All Souls (1744) and had taken the degree of B.C.L. (1745), when, after the usual period of probation, then five years, he was called to the bar in 1746. For a long time he made little way, ‘not being,’ it is said, ‘happy in a graceful delivery or a flow of elocution (both of which he much wanted), nor having any powerful friends or connections to recommend him.’ Perhaps his lack of friends is exaggerated, for only three years after his call he succeeded one of his uncles as recorder of Wallingford. Still his practice must have been small. He attended the courts assiduously, but in the notes which he took of important cases his own name occurs only twice in the period from 1746 to 1760. He was busy, however, at Oxford. He assisted in bringing to completion the Codrington Library, and as bursar of his college and steward of its manors, he had an opportunity of exercising his almost excessive love of order and regularity, ‘applying his legal mind,’ says Professor Burrows, ‘to the examination of all the documents bearing on the college property, re-arranging its archives, and leaving 'a characteristic record of the labour he had bestowed on its accounts in a special manuscript book for the benefit of his successors’. With the same earnestness he entered into the question of founder's kin, which then agitated the college. Claims had been made by remote collateral descendants to the privileges which Archbishop Chichele declared in favour of his kin. The college held that some bounds should be put to the meaning of kindred, but their decisions in particular cases were uniformly overruled by the visitors. Blackstone defended the college in a tract on Collateral Consanguinity (1750), arguing that if there were no collateral limit all men would be founder's kin, and concluding in favour of the limit of the canon law, namely the seventh degree. It was probably due in great part to the assistance which he thus gave that in his lifetime a regulation was made limiting the number of privileged fellows. He found fresh work in an attempt to reform the administration of the Clarendon Press. On being appointed a delegate in 1755 he saw the Press ‘languishing in a lazy obscurity,’ and set himself to discover the cause. He studied the charters, statutes, and registers relating to it, and ‘had repeated conferences,’ he says, ‘with the most eminent masters, in London and other places, with regard to the mechanical part of printing.’ His recommendations, many of which were carried into effect, he set out in a letter to Dr. Randolph, the vice-chancellor, which still retains some interest from its details as to the cost of printing. Blackstone himself gave an example of admirable printing in his edition of Magna Charta, published by the Clarendon Press in 1758, under the direction of Dr. Prince.
He had meanwhile been led to the chief work of his life. Murray, the solicitor-general (afterwards Lord Mansfield), had recommended him to the Duke of Newcastle for the professorship of civil law at Oxford, which fell vacant in 1752; but owing, it is said, to his want of readiness to promise that he would give the duke his political support at the university, he was passed over. The disappointment was great, but Murray, who seems even then to have understood where Blackstone's strength lay, advised him to go to Oxford and read lectures on English law. As it turned out, he could not have had better advice. Not only were his lectures received with great favour, but they suggested to Mr. Viner the idea of founding a chair of English law. Mr. Viner, who had himself done useful work in compiling his Abridgment of Law and Equity, bequeathed a sum of £12,000 for the purpose; and so clear were his directions that in 1758, only two years after his death, his scheme was carried to completion, and Blackstone, as the first professor, began his lectures. Among his hearers at one time was Bentham, who claims to have even then detected the fallacies that were to appear in the Commentaries, and who describes him as ‘a formal, precise, and affected lecturer—just what you would expect from the character of his writings; cold, reserved, and wary; exhibiting a frigid pride’.
The subject was a novel one in an English university; and Blackstone's lectures, which showed the skill of the man of letters quite as much as the learning of the lawyer, attracted considerable attention, and quickly led to a bettering of his own prospects. He took up law once more, and for several years lived a twofold life: in London, practising at Westminster, taking silk (1761), and sitting in parliament as member for Hindon in Wiltshire (1761); and at Oxford, holding not only his professorship, but also the principalship of New Inn Hall, to which he was appointed in 1761. From this time onward his name occurs frequently in his own reports of cases; and, seeing that in 1761 he was offered and that he declined the chief justiceship of the Common Pleas in Ireland, and that two years later he was made solicitor-general to the queen, he must have rapidly risen to a high place in his profession. Through his published works, too, he was becoming known as a careful student of legal history. He had been counsel in the case of the Oxfordshire election in 1754, when one of the questions raised was whether tenants holding by copy of court roll according to the custom of the manor, though not at the will of the lord, were freeholders qualified to vote in elections for knights of the shire. The case exciting great interest, Blackstone elaborately discussed the question in his Considerations on Copyholders, tracing the history of the tenures in dispute, and arguing that they could not confer the freehold vote. The matter was settled by the passing of the act 31 Geo. II, cap. 14, which declared all tenants holding by copy of court roll incapable of voting. Apart from its own value, Blackstone's tract shows that he had made a far more careful study of the history of English tenures than his Commentaries would lead one to imagine. But here, as elsewhere, he accepted too readily the conclusions of previous writers, never questioning, for instance, the theory, afterwards repeated in a balder form in the Commentaries, and still almost universally received as true, that copyholders were originally villeins in a state of bondage, who after the Conquest, by the ‘good-nature and benevolence’ of their lords, had been permitted to hold their lands without interruption till finally they got fixity of tenure according to the custom of the manor. Blackstone is not to blame for originating the theory; see Coke's Compleat Copyholder; Bacon's Use of the Law; Wright's Tenures; Gilbert's Tenures. A great part of the passage in the Commentaries, in fact, is in Wright's words.
In 1759 Blackstone brought out his first important work, an edition of the Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest. It contains the Articles of the Barons, the issues of the Great Charter in 1215, 1216, and 1217, with several charters of confirmation, the Charter of the Forest, and the Statute of Marlebridge. In a long introduction he traces the history of the charter up to the 29 Edw. I, and gives an account of the various manuscripts known to him, most of which he had himself examined.
Some imperfect reports of his lectures having been circulated, and some having ‘fallen,’ as he says, ‘into mercenary hands, and become the object of clandestine sale,’ Blackstone determined to prepare them for publication in the form of a general survey of English law. The manuscript notes of his lectures, in his own handwriting, are in the library of the Incorporated Law Society. They are in four volumes, written with great neatness, and with scarcely a single erasure. He produced the first volume of the Commentaries in 1765, and the other three volumes at intervals during the next four years. The work begins with his first Vinerian lecture on the study of the law, and elegant plea, once much admired, ‘that a competent knowledge of the laws of that society in which we live is the proper accomplishment of every gentleman and scholar’. He goes on, by way of introduction, to discuss the nature of laws in general, the sources of English law, the countries subject to that law, and the legal divisions of England. In the exposition of the law he follows the arrangement of which he had published the outline on beginning his lectures (Analysis of the Law, 1754), and which in substance he adopted from Hale's Analysis of the Civil part of the Law. He treats first of the rights commanded or recognised by the law, and secondly of the wrongs which it prohibits; rights again he divides, accepting Hale's unfortunate translation from Roman law, into rights of persons and rights of things (or property), and wrongs into private wrongs, or civil injuries, and public wrongs, or ‘crimes and misdemeanors.’ To each of these four divisions is allotted a volume. The work closes with a chapter on the rise, progress, and gradual improvements of the laws of England, which is interesting as having suggested to Reeves the utility of a history of English law filled up with some minuteness upon the outline there drawn. The work thus covers the field of law, and though its critics have remarked some disproportion in its parts, such subjects as public law, equity, ecclesiastical law, and the constitution and jurisdiction of the courts receiving less than their due attention, yet there is a singular completeness in the whole.
Few books have been more successful than the Commentaries. From his lectures, and from the sale of the work, he is said to have made altogether about £14,000. Eight editions appeared in the author's lifetime, and the ninth edition was ready for publication. For sixty years after his death editions continued to follow one another almost as quickly; editors were found in men like Burn, Christian, Coleridge, and Chitty, who felt that they were rendering a service to their profession in annotating Blackstone with minute and almost tender care; and laymen turned to him to find for the first time English law made readable. So great have been the growth and the changes of law during the last century that to keep the work up to date by means of footnotes is now an almost hopeless task. The attempt is not abandoned in America, but Blackstone's text has not been reprinted in England since the edition of 1844. As an institutional treatise, however, it still stands alone. When annotation grew too cumbersome, less reverent editors came who laid hands on the text itself, and by mechanically inserting corrections and additions adapted it to modern use. In most cases, from a strange desire for uniformity, they have even removed from the lecture on the study of the law the form of oral address and all the references which it contains to the circumstances of its delivery, and have given it thus maimed as a formal introductory chapter; while Blackstone's worn-out theories on the origin and nature of law and government have been considered to need only abridgment and not revision. The best known of the adaptations, in point of arrangement and otherwise composed with a freer hand than the rest (the poor laws, for example, being no longer treated under the head of overseers of the poor), is Stephen's New Commentaries on the Laws of England, first published in 1841. It reached a ninth edition in 1883, and is now the recognised text-book by which solicitors are introduced to law. It is still to Blackstone, in some form or other, that English law students turn who seek a general view of the subject. The Commentaries has had a yet higher legal fame, having almost, but not quite, reached the distinction accorded to those treatises which, as Blackstone himself says, ‘are cited as authority; and do not entirely depend on the strength of their quotations from older authors.’ His name is constantly heard in our courts, and to this day judges fortify their decisions by quoting his statement of the law.
How wide his influence has been may be judged on the one side from the fact that throughout Digby's History of the Law of Real Property his work is referred to ‘as at once the most available and the most trustworthy authority on the law of the eighteenth century,’ and on the other side from the publication in 1822 of Sir J. E. Eardley-Wilmot's Abridgment, ‘intended for the use of young persons, and comprised in a series of letters from a father to his daughter,’ and from the existence of a ‘Comic Blackstone.’ His reputation is not confined to England. It was made, indeed, matter of reproach to French jurists that they incessantly cited Blackstone as a great authority, rating him even higher than did his own countrymen; and it is still to the Commentaries that most continental writers refer on points of English law. Nowhere has his work been more widely read than in America. ‘I hear,’ said Burke, in 1775, ‘that they have sold nearly as many of Blackstone's Commentaries in America as in England.’ It has been edited and abridged in America nearly as often as in England; it suggested to Chancellor Kent the idea of writing his Commentaries on American Law; and there, as here, it has shaped the course of legal education.
Yet while edition after edition was appearing the work had many hard things said about it. There were some who looked with apprehension on an attempt to make smooth the path of the student of law. President Jefferson is reported to have doubted the propriety of citing in America English authorities after the period of emigration, and still more after the declaration of independence, and to have said that the consequence of excluding them would be ‘to uncanonise Blackstone, whose book, although the most eloquent and best digested of our law catalogue, has been perverted more than all others to the degeneracy of legal science. A student finds there a smattering of everything, and his indolence easily persuades him that if he understands that book he is master of the whole body of the law’. Blackstone sustained more vigorous attacks at home. In 1769, when the publication of the first edition was completed, Dr. Priestley wrote what Blackstone called ‘a very angry pamphlet’ on some passages in the Commentaries relating to dissenters. Blackstone replied in a conciliatory tone, admitting that the passages needed some revision in point of expression, but confessing to no material change of opinion; and Priestley wrote a second letter of explanation, in which, as one of his friends said, ‘there is rather too much submission for the honour of having been noticed’. The same part of the work was subjected to a more careful examination in certain letters on the Toleration Act, addressed to Blackstone by Dr. Furneaux, who not only condemned its illiberal spirit, but found grave fault with it as an incomplete statement of the law. These criticisms were so far successful that in subsequent editions the obnoxious passages were considerably modified; the doubt, for example, being no longer expressed whether, as compared with those of the papists, ‘the spirit, the doctrines, and the practice of the sectaries are better calculated to make men good subjects.’ A few years later (1776) came Bentham's famous Fragment on Government, directed against the digression on the legislative power of government which occurs in Blackstone's chapter on the nature of laws in general, where he states his quaint proof of the perfection of the British constitution. Bentham did not notice, nor did Blackstone acknowledge, that much of this chapter comes from Burlamaqui, the very words being sometimes reproduced. Even the digression, which to Bentham seemed to be made without any reason, occurs in Burlamaqui with the same context. In the preface to the tract Bentham summed up his opinion of the Commentaries as a whole, and while frankly recognising Blackstone's merits, ‘who, first of all institutional writers, has taught jurisprudence to speak the language of the scholar and the gentleman,’ urged that the work is thoroughly vitiated by its tone of intolerance and of blind admiration. We have only Bentham's own account of the way in which Blackstone received the criticism; when asked if he would answer it, he said, ‘No, not even if it had been better written.’ The judgment of Austin was not less severe. To him Blackstone's arrangement is a slavish and blundering copy of Hale's; in the whole work there is not a single particle of original or discriminating thought; its flattery of English institutions is ‘a paltry but effectual artifice’ which has made it popular; and its style, for which other critics have only one voice of admiration, is ‘a style which is fitted to tickle the ear, though it never or rarely satisfies a severe and masculine taste’. There should be mentioned one other critic, long ago forgotten, Sedgwick, the editor of Gilbert's Law of Evidence, who, with strong dissent, yet in a spirit of great fairness and with minute care, discusses Blackstone's first volume, chapter by chapter. A weak reply to Sedgwick was made by W. H. Rowe in a ‘Vindication of Blackstone's Commentaries’ (1806).
The criticisms of Bentham and of Austin had weight enough to bring Blackstone into undue discredit. To read the Commentaries ceased to be considered an essential part of the liberal education of gentlemen and scholars, and it grew the fashion to speak lightly of the work. There seems now to be the beginning of a more just appreciation. Most of the specific charges against Blackstone were indeed well founded. His was not a mind of much analytical power, nor in any high sense was he an original thinker. His philosophy of law was but a confused mingling of the theories of Puffendorf, Locke, and Montesquieu; and its importance now consists only in its having created, by repulsion, the later English school of jurisprudence. Of the spirit of intellectual independence he had very little. Partly by nature, partly through his political sympathies, partly also, it must be remembered, from a truly worthy admiration of a great system of law and government, he was conservative almost to rigidity. In a characteristic passage he declared that the legal restraints to which Englishmen were subject in his day were ‘so gentle and moderate that no man of sense or probity would wish to see them slackened’; and, with not less boldness, speaking of the time of Charles II, and drawing a distinction between the theoretical perfection of law and its practical working, he said that ‘by the law, as it then stood, the people had as large a portion of real liberty as is consistent with a state of society’.
The extent of his learning, moreover, has been often exaggerated. He never knew the civil law otherwise than superficially, and frequently states it inaccurately; and even in English law his work is not more remarkable for original research than for the singular skill which it shows in making a happy use of the labours of previous text-writers. As Lord Ellenborough suggested, he made himself a learned lawyer by writing the Commentaries . But within his own sphere of exposition his merits are very great. ‘It requires, perhaps,’ says Coleridge, in the preface to his edition of the Commentaries, ‘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 sum 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.’ To this just eulogy one need only add that Blackstone had formed the true conception of an institutional work, which not merely should state the principles of existing law, but by means of ‘the learning out of use’ should explain their growth. And so well did he carry out his plan that in the Commentaries there is still to be found the best general history of English law, needing comparatively little correction, and told with admirable clearness and spirit. To his style Austin did less than justice. It lacks variety and restraint; but, except amid the loose generalities of the introductory chapters, it is never obscure, and at its best it rises to considerable dignity. Fox thought it ‘the very best among our modern writers, always easy and intelligible; far more correct than Hume, and less studied and made up than Robertson’.
In 1766 Blackstone, with a growing practice and failing health, resigned both his professorship and his principalship. He still continued to sit in the House of Commons, being returned for the new parliament of 1768 as member for Westbury, in Wiltshire. But beyond a slight connection with Dr. Musgrave's report on the peace of 1763, his political career was marked by only a single incident. In the exciting debates on Wilkes he played an unfortunate part. On the motion to declare Luttrell elected, Blackstone gave it as his opinion that Wilkes was by common law disqualified from sitting in the house. Grenville retorted by quoting from the Commentaries the causes of disqualification, none of which applied to Wilkes. ‘It is well known,’ says Philo-Junius, describing the scene, ‘that there was a pause of some minutes in the house, from a general expectation that the doctor would say something in his own defence; but it seems his faculties were too much overpowered to think of those subtleties and refinements which have since occurred to him.’ The matter gave rise to a prolonged paper controversy, in which Sir W. Meredith, Blackstone, Junius, Dr. Johnson, and others took part. Blackstone, who argued that the expulsion of a member creates in him an incapacity of being re-elected, had certainly the worst of the controversy, maintaining without great dignity an indefensible position. Without allowing himself to have been in the wrong, he took pains in his next edition to state the causes of disqualification so as to include such a case as that of Wilkes. Hence came the toast at opposition banquets: ‘The first edition of Dr. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England;'.
After this experience, Blackstone was no doubt glad to retire from parliament. He was invited to be solicitor-general, but he declined the office, as hopes of a judgeship were at the same time held out to him. In February 1770 he was made a justice of the Common Pleas, but he immediately exchanged places with Mr. Justice Yates, and for a few months sat with Lord Mansfield in the court of King's Bench. On Yates's death in the same year he returned to the Common Pleas. He acquired the reputation of being a painstaking judge, and nothing more. Although he had now unquestionably made himself a learned lawyer, his excessive caution and a scrupulous adherence to formalities stood sadly in his way. What Malone tells us of him is in keeping with his general character: ‘There were more new trials granted in causes which came before him on circuit than were granted on the decisions of any other judge who sat at Westminster in his time. The reason was that, being extremely diffident of his opinion, he never supported it with much warmth or pertinacity in the court above if a new trial was moved for’. In his later years he succeeded in procuring an increase in the salaries of judges; and he devoted much of his time to advocating a reform in the system of criminal punishment. He strongly supported the penitentiary system, and it was mainly owing to him and Eden (Lord Auckland) that the act 19 George III c. 74 was passed.
He died on14 February 1780 and was buried in the parish church of Wallingford, where he had spent much of the latter part of his life. He had married in 1761 Sarah Clitherow, and of his nine children one followed so far in his footsteps as to become a fellow of All Souls, principal of New Inn Hall, Vinerian professor, and assessor in the vice-chancellor's court. Henry Blackstone, the law reporter, was his nephew.
In personal character he ever showed that almost oppressive spirit of orderliness which kept him busy at Oxford, and which exhibited itself throughout his life in habits of scrupulous punctuality. He was both languid and hot-tempered. So languid was he, it is said, that in writing the Commentaries he required a bottle of port before him, being ‘invigorated and supported in the fatigue of his great work by a temperate use of it’; and Lord Stowell, who is the authority for the story, also said that Blackstone was the only man he had ever known who acknowledged and lamented his bad temper. Physically as well as mentally he was lethargic; he grew stout, and came more and more to dislike all forms of exercise, and he seems really to have died from the want of it.
His statue by Bacon, representing him with his right hand on the Commentaries, and with Magna Charta in his left, stands in the Codrington Library. His works are:
|Meet the web creator
These materials may be freely used for
non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances
and distribution to students.
Last modified 12 January, 2016
|American Affairs 1760-83
|The Age of the French Wars 1792-1815
|Irish Affairs 1760-89
|Economic Affairs in the Age of Peel
|Primary sources index
|British Political Personalities
|British Foreign policy 1815-65