• Exploring American History

An English solicitor offers the building blocks for America’s government

Stepping to the podium in the lecture hall of Oxford University, William Blackstone felt himself to be ill-prepared. Now 30 years old, the portly solicitor used his raspy voice to deliver his lecture about English law to his audience.

Born on July 10, 1723, Sir William Blackstone was an English jurist, judge and Tory politician. In 1746 he entered the bar and in 1765, became the first person to lecture on English law at an English university. His life’s major ‘claim to fame’ was his four volume masterpiece, Commentaries on the Laws of England.

Given Blackstone’s emotional discomfort while delivering his information, one could comfortably bet the rent and win that one thing he never imagined was the fact the commentaries he would later publish would become the building blocks for two of the greatest documents to ever be written – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

Thankfully for Blackstone, the lectures were well-received by his audience. He seemed to have a talent for delivering his information in a way that breathed life and interest into a subject most considered to be dull and boring. The lectures also seemed to remove from Blackstone’s mind an cloud which had parked itself over his head with no sign of leaving. In its place, there was revealed a source of immense intellect with a great deal of brilliance.

Published in four volumes, the commentaries were a series of lectures Blackstone delivered at Oxford University in 1753. The volumes, released between 1765 and 1769, clarified the unstructured body of English law. Blackstone earned approximately £14,000 for his books (£2,489,907 in 2020); along with success as a lawyer, politician, judge and scholar.

As is the case many times, the success of Commentaries generated venomous attacks on its author; one of which referred to the publications as “ignorance on stilts”. With no shortage of critics, thankfully Blackstone pressed on.

The Commentaries were later published in Philadelphia in 1771/72. Their first release of 1,400 copies quickly sold out and a second edition soon followed. In time, Commentaries were translated into German, French and Russian.

Blackstone’s goal for releasing Commentaries was to offer a resource on the subject of common law in a form the majority of people could read and understand. These volumes made it possible for non-lawyers to better comprehend the laws that governed them.

The four volumes addressed four different topics:

· Volume 1 – Rights of People

· Volume 2 – Rights of Things (property) – the longest of the set

· Volume 3 – Private Wrongs

· Volume 4 – Public Wrongs

Sir Blackstone’s Commentaries were viewed as the supreme authority regarding common law by the framers of the Constitution of the United States, due to the logic they contained. To this day, Blackstone’s work continues to be cited in America’s court rooms in order to express the gist of America’s laws and her constitution.

* * * * *

No other book, except the Bible, played a greater role in the history of American institutions. The Founders of the country found their philosophy in John Locke and their passion in Thomas Paine, but they found the blueprint for a new nation in Blackstone. To be sure, they did not construct the government as Blackstone would have designed it. They added and subtracted from it as they went along, but the foundation was built on Blackstone.

Daniel Boorstin 1941, author - The Mysterious Science of the Law

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