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Portrait of Sir William Blackstone by Thomas Gainsborough, 1774.

Sir William Blackstone (10 July 1723 – 14 February 1780) was an English judge, jurist and professor who produced the historical and analytic treatise on the common law entitled 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.



He received his education at Charterhouse School and at Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1743 he was elected fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and [he] was called to the bar as a barrister at the Middle Temple in 1746. After practicing in the courts of Westminster for several years without great success, in 1753 he retired to Oxford where he launched a pioneering private lecture course on the laws and government of England (not then taught at either English university). In 1758 he was elected unopposed to the new chair in English Law endowed by the will of Charles Viner (who had died in 1756), delivering his first lecture as foundation Vinerian Professor on 25 October 1758. In 1761 Blackstone was appointed Principal of New Inn Hall (now St. Peter's College, Oxford), a position which he held until 1766. Blackstone lived at Priory Place (later Castle Priory) in Wallingford, and is buried at St Peter's Church in the town.

In 1761 Blackstone won election as a Member of Parliament for Hindon and received a patent of precedence at the bar (equivalent to the rank of king's counsel). Blackstone's "political views were those of the Old Whigs and his ideals were those of the Glorious Revolution of 1688".[1] He was knighted in 1770 and appointed a puisne justice of the Court of Common Pleas.

The four volumes of the Commentaries, first published between 1765 and 1769 in Oxford and first issued in an American edition in 1771, won instant recognition for their able synthesis of the often bewildering doctrines that made up the common law and for their elegant writing style. Leading American attorneys who first learned their law by reading Blackstone include Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Jefferson at first admired Blackstone's learning and eloquence, but later denounced his treatise as "honeyed Mansfieldism," a reference to the great conservative English jurist Lord Mansfield.

Sir William Blackstone statue located in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the Commentaries, Blackstone published the first scholarly edition of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. He also wrote poetry, numerous pamphlets on university and national politics, two architectural manuscripts, and other legal treatises. 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, particularly the term Pursuit of Happiness, 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 to the era of the nation's founding, to illuminate the legal and intellectual culture that helped to shape 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.

The Virginia lawyer and judge St. George Tucker prepared his own edition of Blackstone's Commentaries, adapting the treatise to American needs and conditions. His version was widely used for much of the nineteenth century.

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 Jurisprudence

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-Catholicism

William Blackstone's Commentaries summarized his attitude toward Roman Catholics as follows:

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


  1. ^ Gareth Jones, 'Introduction' in Jones (ed.), The Sovereignty of the Law. Selections from Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (Macmillan, 1973), p. xx.


  • This article incorporates public domain text from : Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J. M. Dent & Sons; New York, E. P. Dutton.
  • The leading modern biography is Wilfrid Prest, William Blackstone: Law and Letters in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). ISBN 0199550298.
  • Daniel J. Boorstin, The Mysterious Science of the Law: An Essay on Blackstone's Commentaries showing how Blackstone, employing eighteenth-century ideas of science, religion, history, aesthetics, and philosophy, made of the law at once a conservative and mysterious science. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941; reissued with a new foreword, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). ISBN 0226064980.
  • Wilfrid Prest has also edited The Letters of Sir William Blackstone 1744-1780 (London, Selden Society, 2006), ISBN 0854231900, and more recently a collection of essays on Blackstone and his Commentaries: Biography, Law, History (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2009), ISBN 9781841137964.

See also

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Vinerian Professor of English Law
Succeeded by
Sir Robert Chambers


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.

Sir William Blackstone (July 10, 1723February 14, 1780) was an English jurist and professor who produced the historical treatise on the common law called Commentaries on the Laws of England


Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)

  • Law, in its most general and comprehensive sense, signifies a rule of action; and is applied indiscriminately to all kinds of action, whether animate, or inanimate, rational or irrational. Thus we say, the laws of motion, of gravitation, of optics, or mechanics, as well as the laws of nature and of nations. And it is that rule of action, which is prescribed by some superior, and which the inferior is bound to obey.
  • Man was formed for society.
    • Introduction, Section II: Of the Nature of Laws in General
  • The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature: being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endowed him with the faculty of freewill. But every man, when he enters into society, gives up a part of his natural liberty, as the price of so valuable a purchase; and, in consideration of receiving the advantages of mutual commerce, obliges himself to conform to those laws, which the community has thought proper to establish.
  • In this distinct and separate existence of the judicial power, in a peculiar body of men, nominated indeed, but not removable at pleasure, by the crown, consists one main preservative of the public liberty; which cannot subsist long in any state, unless the administration of common justice be in some degree separated both from the legislative and the also from the executive power. Were it joined with the legislative, the life, liberty, and property of the subject would be in the hands of arbitrary judges, whose decisions would be then regulated only by their own opinions, and not by any fundamental principles of law; which, though legislators may depart from, yet judges are bound to observe. Were it joined with the executive, this union might soon be an overbalance for the legislative. For which reason... effectual care is taken to remove all judicial power out of the hands of the king's privy council; who, as then was evident from recent instances might soon be inclined to pronounce that for law, which was most agreeable to the prince or his officers. Nothing therefore is to be more avoided, in a free constitution, than uniting the provinces of a judge and a minister of state.
  • The royal navy of England hath ever been its greatest defense and ornament; it is its ancient and natural strength; the floating bulwark of our island.
  • Time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.
  • There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or that 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. And yet there are very few, that will give themselves the trouble to consider the original and foundation of this right.
  • That the king can do no wrong, is a necessary and fundamental principle of the English constitution.
  • All the several pleas and excuses, which protect the committer of a forbidden act from the punishment which is otherwise annexed thereto, may be reduced to this single consideration, the want or defect of will. An involuntary act, as it has no claim to merit, so neither can it induce any guilt: the concurrence of the will, when it has its choice either to do or to avoid the fact in question, being the only thing that renders human actions either praiseworthy or culpable. Indeed, to make a complete crime, cognizable by human laws, there must be both a will and an act.
  • Of crimes injurious to the persons of private subjects, the most principal and important is the offense of taking away that life, which is the immediate gift of the great creator; and which therefore no man can be entitled to deprive himself or another of, but in some manner either expressly commanded in, or evidently deducible from, those laws which the creator has given us; the divine laws, I mean, of either nature or revelation.
  • The founders of the English laws have with excellent forecast contrived, that no man should be called to answer to the king for any capital crime, unless upon the preparatory accusation of twelve or more of his fellow subjects, the grand jury: and that the truth of every accusation, whether preferred in the shape of indictment, information, or appeal, should afterwards be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbours, indifferently chosen, and superior to all suspicion. So that the liberties of England cannot but subsist, so long as this palladium remains sacred and inviolate, not only from all open attacks, (which none will be so hardy as to make) but also from all secret machinations, which may sap and undermine it; by introducing new and arbitrary methods of trial, by justices of the peace, commissioners of the revenue, and courts of conscience. And however convenient these may appear at first, (as doubtless all arbitrary powers, well executed, are the most convenient) yet let it be again remembered, that delays, and little inconveniences in the forms of justice, are the price that all free nations must pay for their liberty in more substantial matters; that these inroads upon this sacred bulwark of the nation are fundamentally opposite to the spirit of our constitution; and that, though begun in trifles, the precedent may gradually increase and spread, to the utter disuse of juries in questions of the most momentous concern.
  • It is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.
    • Book IV, ch. 27

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