William Blackstone: sour and accidentally successful, but definitely not succinct

The start of the new Michaelmas term got in the way of the Old Library cataloguing project, which had to take a bit of a back seat while we welcomed and explained and informed and clarified (we hope!) and inculcated all of our  lovely new undergraduates as to the arcane and mystical truths of the Jerwood Library (including what to do when the self-issue machine breaks down).  Now they’re all settled in and know how to renew their books (again, we hope!), my attention can wander back to a bit of rare books cataloguing.

Yesterday afternoon, I catalogued the four volumes of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.  It’s apparently a remarkably influential work, not just in terms of its synthesis of English law, but it’s said to have played a key role in the development of United States jurisprudence.  It was described as ‘the most important legal treatise ever written in the English language’ by Professor Katz, who introduced the 1979 edition–yes, 1979! which is pretty steep praise, not even mentioning the fact that it was still being printed more than 200 years after it was first published.  (Amazon are advertising a Kindle edition of the first volume as well, for the extra keen).  The four volumes cover the rights of persons, of things, and private and public wrongs, so it’s fairly comprehensive.  Wondering a bit more about the author of these famous and esteemed works, I typed his name into Google, and was a bit surprised by what I found.  Not very much, if I’m honest, and little of it positive.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

William Blackstone, 1723-1780

Rumour has it (read: the Internet has it) that William Blackstone was born in Cheapside in July 1723.  Educated at Charterhouse, then Oxford, he entered Middle Temple in 1740, and would later return to Oxford as a Fellow of All Souls in 1744.  Not bad for a 21-year old!  In fact, it seems that Blackstone was no Rumpole of the Bailey, and his lack of success as a barrister led him back to Oxford to pursue an academic career.  A vaguely successful series of lectures in the 1750s earned him the position of Vinerian Professor of English Law at the Other Place.  I say ‘vaguely successful’—in fact, he made a couple of enemies during this time in his life, most notably Jeremy Bentham, who would later utterly and lastingly denounce the Commentaries, which was based on the lectures.

Jeremy Bentham: not a fan

In any case, Blackstone’s position at Oxford meant that he enjoyed some business as a barrister (if little success in this business), as well as positions including MP for Hindon, Principal of New Inn Hall (now St Peter’s College, Oxford), King’s Counsel, a knighthood, and Judge in the Court of the Common Pleas.  This all sounds very impressive, no doubt, and yet in 1782 an unnamed colleague wrote of him that ‘as a pleader, as a senator, and as a judge, Sir William Blackstone was certainly respectable, but not the greatest of his time’, and this lukewarm response to Blackstone seems to be the general consensus.  His biographer, Wilfrid Prest, puts a nice spin on it though: had he been in more demand, he argues, he may never have had the necessary leisure time or motivation to complete his Commentaries. Having said that, Blackstone married only four years before the volumes were printed, and had nine children, so I imagine Mrs Blackstone wishes he’d occasionally been a bit busier.  And it also seems that he wasn’t a hugely charming or inspiring man, described as ‘sour, morose and imperious’ by a solicitor, William Bray.

Title page of Vol. 2

What sets Blackstone apart, then, isn’t so much his tepidly glimmering/ glimmeringly tepid career as a lawyer, or even his proclivity to procreation, but this work I’ve got in front of me now.  Famed for its elegant writing style, its readability, its clarity, its comprehensiveness and Blackstone’s achievement of his goals to synthesise common law and make it succinct (succinct? Succinct? He must be having a laugh, it’s four volumes, for heaven’s sake).

Trinity Hall’s copies are in near pristine condition, with very few markings in the margin, few annotations, and the binding’s still almost perfect.  This strikes me as rather odd.  Other contemporaneous books I’ve looked at were patently well used, annotated, thumbed—and yet Blackstone’s Commentaries aren’t.  And this has led me to ruminate briefly on some of the possible reasons why.  Perhaps our Trinity Hall lawyers of old weren’t too thorough, and just didn’t bother with these volumes; or perhaps they held them in such astonishingly high regard that they didn’t dare read/touch/breathe in the vicinity of them.  I don’t know the books’ provenance, so perhaps they’re fairly recent acquisitions and were kept elsewhere where they were never used.  Perhaps the syllabus back then didn’t cover common law.  Or perhaps, and I’m leaning towards this one, I’ll admit, the Trinity Hall lawyers of the eighteenth century were so positively affronted by the notion that these volumes were perceived to be “succinct” that they refused to go anywhere near them!  Any other suggestions gratefully received!

Not my idea of succinct

Leaving all that aside, Blackstone’s Commentaries has a strong legacy, and I don’t just mean the way that his named is adorned all over plenty of current law textbooks.  Nor do I mean the way in which the Commentaries are mentioned in Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, and most impressively of all, an early Perry Mason novel.  Rather it’s the legacy over the pond which is truly striking.  Blackstone wrote his Commentaries shortly before the American Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, and its influence in the Declaration is patent—Blackstone is alleged to have coined the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’, for which Will Smith is probably grateful.  Many commentators assert that the groundwork for US jurisprudence lies with this text, and that is genuinely extraordinary, given the analyses of this man and his skills.

The success of the Commentaries has, perhaps fortunately, overshadowed this dour and irritated and bad-tempered chap who, according to James Boswell, ‘always had a bottle of port before him’.  But despite all of his unpleasantness, I quite like him.  Blackstone couldn’t turn his hand to anything.  He didn’t meet with success at every turn.  He failed at many of the things he tried.  He wasn’t one of those annoying people who are just good at stuff.  In many respects, he was postively mediocre.  Yet his legacy—and his name—lives on, which makes me think there’s hope for all of us yet.

For extra credit:

Prest, W. (2008). William Blackstone: Law and letters in the eighteenth century. Oxford: OUP.

Prest, W. (2010). Blackstone as a barrister. London: Selden Society.

Pannick, D. ‘William Blackstone: a sour, morose and imperious judge of the common law’. From The Times, October 15, 2008.

Wikipedia on Blackstone and the Commentaries.

The IEP on Jeremy Bentham.