1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Blackstone, Sir William
BLACKSTONE, SIR WILLIAM (1723–1780), English jurist, was born in London, on the 10th of July 1723. His parents having died when he was young, his early education, under the care of his uncle, Dr Thomas Bigg, was obtained at the Charterhouse, from which, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to Pembroke College, Oxford. He was entered in the Middle Temple in 1741. In 1744 he was elected a fellow of All Souls’ College. From this period he divided his time between the university and the Temple, where he took chambers in order to attend the law courts. In 1746 he was called to the bar. Though but little known or distinguished as a pleader, he was actively employed, during his occasional residences at the university, in taking part in the internal management of his college. In May 1749, as a small reward for his services, and to give him further opportunities of advancing the interests of the college, Blackstone was appointed steward of its manors. In the same year, on the resignation of his uncle, Seymour Richmond, he was elected recorder of the borough of Wallingford in Berkshire. In 1750 he became doctor of civil law. In 1753 he decided to retire from London work to his fellowship and an academical life, still continuing the practice of his profession as a provincial counsel.
His lectures on the laws of England appear to have been an early and favourite idea; for in the Michaelmas term immediately after he abandoned London, he entered on the duty of reading them at Oxford; and we are told by the author of his Life, that even at their commencement, the high expectations formed from the acknowledged abilities of the lecturer attracted to these lectures a very crowded class of young men of the first families, characters and hopes. Bentham, however, declares that he was 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.” It was not till the year 1758 that the lectures in the form they now bear were read in the university. Blackstone, having been unanimously elected to the newly-founded Vinerian professorship, on the 25th of October read his first introductory lecture, afterwards prefixed to the first volume of his celebrated Commentaries. It is doubtful whether the Commentaries were originally intended for the press; but many imperfect and incorrect copies having got into circulation, and a pirated edition of them being either published or preparing for publication in Ireland, the author thought proper to print a correct edition himself, and in November 1765 published the first volume, under the title of Commentaries on the Laws of England. The remaining parts of the work were given to the world in the course of the four succeeding years. It may be remarked that before this period the reputation which his lectures had deservedly acquired for him had induced him to resume practice in London; and, contrary to the general order of the profession, he who had quitted the bar for an academic life was sent back from the college to the bar with a considerable increase of business. He was likewise elected to parliament, first for Hindon, and afterwards for Westbury in Wilts; but in neither of these departments did he equal the expectations which his writings had raised. The part he took in the Middlesex election drew upon him many attacks as well as a severe animadversion from the caustic pen of “Junius.” This circumstance probably strengthened the aversion he professed to parliamentary attendance, “where,” he said, “amidst the rage of contending parties, a man of moderation must expect to meet with no quarter from any side.” In 1770 he declined the place of solicitor-general; but shortly afterwards, on the promotion of Sir Joseph Yates to a seat in the court of common pleas, he accepted a seat on the bench, and on the death of Sir Joseph succeeded him there also. He died on the 14th of February 1780.
The design of the Commentaries is exhibited in his first Vinerian lecture printed in the introduction to them. The author there dwells on the importance of noblemen, gentlemen and educated persons generally being well acquainted with the laws of the country; and his treatise, accordingly, is as far as possible a popular exposition of the laws of England. Falling into the common error of identifying the various meanings of the word law, he advances from the law of nature (being either the revealed or the inferred will of God) to municipal law, which he defines to be a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong. On this definition he founds the division observed in the Commentaries. The objects of law are rights and wrongs. Rights are either rights of persons or rights of things. Wrongs are either public or private. These four headings form respectively the subjects of the four books of the Commentaries.
Blackstone was by no means what would now be called a scientific jurist. He has only the vaguest possible grasp of the elementary conceptions of law. He evidently regards the law of gravitation, the law of nature, and the law of England, as different examples of the same principle—as rules of action or conduct imposed by a superior power on its subjects. He propounds in terms the doctrine that municipal or positive laws derive their validity from their conformity to the so-called law of nature or law of God. “No human laws,” he says, “are of any validity if contrary to this.” His distinction between rights of persons and rights of things, implying, as it would appear, that things as well as persons have rights, is attributable to a misunderstanding of the technical terms of the Roman law. In distinguishing between private and public wrongs (civil injuries and crimes) he fails to seize the true principle of the division. Austin, who accused him of following slavishly the method of Hale’s Analysis of the Law, declares that he “blindly adopts the mistakes of his rude and compendious model; missing invariably, with a nice and surprising infelicity, the pregnant but obscure suggestions which it proffered to his attention, and which would have guided a discerning and inventive writer to an arrangement comparatively just.” By the want of precise and closely-defined terms, and his tendency to substitute loose literary phrases, he falls occasionally into irreconcilable contradictions. Even in discussing a subject of such immense importance as equity, he hardly takes pains to discriminate between the legal and popular senses of the word, and, from the small place which equity jurisprudence occupies in his arrangement, he would scarcely seem to have realized its true position in the law of England. Subject, however, to these strictures the completeness of the treatise, its serviceable if not scientific order, and the power of lucid exposition possessed by the author demand emphatic recognition. Blackstone’s defects as a jurist are more conspicuous in his treatment of the underlying principles and fundamental divisions of the law than in his account of its substantive principles.
Blackstone by no means confines himself to the work of a legal commentator. It is his business, especially when he touches on the framework of society, to find a basis in history and reason for all the most characteristic English institutions. There is not much either of philosophy or fairness in this part of his work. Whether through the natural conservatism of a lawyer, or through his own timidity and subserviency as a man and a politician, he is always found to be a specious defender of the existing order of things. Bentham accuses him of being the enemy of all reform, and the unscrupulous champion of every form of professional chicanery. Austin says that he truckled to the sinister interests and mischievous prejudices of power, and that he flattered the overweening conceit of the English in their own institutions. He displays much ingenuity in giving a plausible form to common prejudices and fallacies; but it is by no means clear that he was not imposed upon himself. More undeniable than the political fairness of the treatise is its merits as a work of literature. It is written in a most graceful and attractive style, and although no opportunity of embellishment has been lost, the language is always simple and clear. Whether it is owing to its literary graces, or to its success in flattering the prejudices of the public to which it was addressed, the influence of the book in England has been extraordinary. Not lawyers only, and lawyers perhaps even less than others, accepted it as an authoritative revelation of the law. It performed for educated society in England much the same service as was rendered to the people of Rome by the publication of their previously unknown laws. It is more correct to regard it as a handbook of the law for laymen than as a legal treatise; and as the first and only book of the kind in England it has been received with somewhat indiscriminating reverence. It is certain that a vast amount of the constitutional sentiment of the country has been inspired by its pages. To this day Blackstone’s criticism of the English constitution would probably express the most profound political convictions of the majority of the English people. Long after it has ceased to be of much practical value as an authority in the courts, it remains the arbiter of all public discussions on the law or the constitution. On such occasions the Commentaries are apt to be construed as strictly as if they were a code. It is curious to observe how much importance is attached to the ipsissima verba of a writer who aimed more at presenting a picture intelligible to laymen than at recording the principles of the law with technical accuracy of detail.
See also the article English Law.