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William Blackstone: Biography & Influence in Colonial America

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The law may seem difficult to understand at times, but that's nothing compared to how inaccessible it was before William Blackstone. In this lesson we'll explore the life and legacy of this jurist, judge, and politician.

William Blackstone

The law sometimes seems like a mess. It can be confusing, contradictory, and at times flat out ridiculous. But, that's nothing compared to what it used to be. In the 18th century, the English law was very difficult for the common person to understand. England's legal system was one of common law, meaning it was not really codified and relied on precedent, as opposed to civil law which is heavily codified through published treatises. So, it could be hard to keep track of for anyone without a juris doctorate. But, that was about to change. Sir William Blackstone was an English jurist and judge who recognized a simple, fundamental truth: the law needs to be accessible to all.

Sir William Blackstone
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Biography

William Blackstone was born to a middle-class family of London in 1723. Despite their class, they were quite wealthy and thanks to his uncle, William was able to attend the Pembroke College at Oxford, although this was partly on scholarship. Blackstone graduated with a degree in civil law, which at the time was the only kind of law being taught. Common law was not an accepted area of study, despite the fact that England's legal system had relied on the common law method for centuries. He went on to become a university administrator and jurist and developed an interest in English common law. He published several works on the subject, the first studies of their kind, and for that was named the first Vinerian Professor of English Common Law at Oxford University. The title Vinerian came from Charles Viner, who donated the money to Oxford to develop a law professorship position. In fact, Blackstone was the first professor to teach common law in any major university in the world. He later served as a member of British Parliament as well, and in 1780, he died from complications with gout.

Commentaries on the Laws of England

While Blackstone published a number of works on English law, particularly English common law, the most influential by far were the Commentaries on the Laws of England, published between 1765 and 1769. This four-part collection was Blackstone's attempt to take the entire, un-codified system of English common law and make it understandable and accessible to the common person. Blackstone outlined the laws and legal precedents, presented the common law system as rational and comprehensible, and justified the common laws as being righteous and accurate. It was an incredible success. The Commentaries were really the first systematic study of English common laws since the invention of the printing press. They flew off the shelves in England, and then were published in a variety of other languages and sold in other countries as well, notably the American colonies.

The Commentaries on the Laws of England
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Influence on the American Colonies

The Commentaries hit American shelves around 1770. At that time, American intellectuals had spent a few decades pretty thoroughly entrenched in ideas about liberty, justice, and representative government. This was all part of the European-American philosophical movement called the Enlightenment, which stressed individual rights and the search for universal, scientific truths. That search extended into the law. Blackstone's commentaries asserted that the ultimate laws were the universal ones given directly by the Judeo-Christian God and that any laws which challenged these were immoral and unjust.

Blackstone's ideas about the law fit in perfectly with Enlightenment ideas about liberty and freedom being discussed in the American colonies. Don't forget, in 1770 we're only six years away from the Declaration of Independence. To the Americans, the Commentaries made all of their rights as English citizens evident and accessible and demonstrated where the government had become oppressive. This, in turn, influenced their belief that they needed self-governance, to rule themselves without England.

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