Blackstone, William (1723–1780)

Author:William F. Swindler

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The influence of Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, first published at Oxford between 1765 and 1769, was pervasive in American jurisprudence for much of the nineteenth century, although the work affected constitutional thought more in the realm of philosophy rather than that of specific legal doctrine. The appeal of this four-volume summation of the COMMON LAW, in the beginning of the American federal system, may be explained in part by its highly readable style and its function as a ready reference for many lawyers and jurists whose professional preparation was often indifferent. The practical need for a comprehensive and coherent view of the parent stock more than offset a tentative effort to make the new nation entirely independent of English legal institutions; and after the first American annotations to Blackstone by ST. GEORGE TUCKER in 1804, the importing of successive English editions and the periodic publication of fresh American editions by jurists like THOMAS M. COOLEY of Michigan and scholars like William Draper Lewis of the University of Pennsylvania made the Commentaries a standard reference for more than a hundred years.

The almost instant appeal of Blackstone to the English New World colonies?soon to be arguing their entitlements

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to the "rights of Englishmen" which they finally concluded could be secured only through independence of England itself?lay not only in its comprehensiveness but also in its epitomizing of the creative mercantilist jurisprudence of Blackstone's friend and contemporary, WILLIAM MURRAY (Lord Mansfield), which demonstrated the adaptability of the common law to "modern" economic objectives. The colonial elite, who had devoted the last generation before independence to "Americanization" of the English law, had economic views substantially similar to the scions of the English ruling classes to whom Blackstone delivered his Oxford lectures as Vinerian professor of English law. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Commentaries?to be followed in the post-Revolutionary period by the published reports of Mansfield?should appeal to the ruling element in the new nation, which was eager to continue the rules of an ordered economy.

These American leaders, Edmund Burke reminded his listeners in his 1775 "Speech on Conciliation," had a sophisticated legal knowledge, and the proof was in the fact that at that date almost as many copies of the Co...

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