National Geographic : 1949 Apr
William Blackstone (1723-80) W ILLIAM BLACKSTONE'S greatest contribution to the English-speaking peoples is his codification of English law, which at the time he began his work he found "a huge irregular pile, with many noble apart ments though awkwardly put together." In 1753 he began to deliver the series of lectures responsible for his success, and from them ulti mately emerged his Commentaries, undoubt edly one of the most influential books in the English language. Blackstone's influence has been greater in the United States than in England, because the book appeared at a psychological moment in American history. Abraham Lincoln read the four volumes in 1835 and said: "The more I read, the more intensely interested I became; never in my whole life was my mind so thor oughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them." Blackstone was born in Cheapside, London. His Wiltshire-born grandfather, an apothecary in Newgate Street, married the daughter of a Wiltshire squire. Blackstone's mother died when he was twelve, and at an early age he was sent to Charterhouse, and subsequently to Oxford University. When he was twenty, he was elected a fellow of All Souls-"'The College of All Faithful Departed Souls," a unique foundation established in the reign of Henry V to pray for the souls of those who fell in the wars of Henry and his son against France. A fellow Middle Templar, Charles Viner, had endowed a professorship of the laws of England at Oxford. Blackstone's chance came when he was appointed to the Vinerian professorship. In his first lecture he declared that the Englishman "better be a stranger to the Roman than to the English Institutions: that the laws of England should be taught to all Englishmen and not merely to law stu dents." Blackstone's lecture attracted immediate and wide attention. To the future George III, then Prince of Wales, they were read by his mentor Lord Bute. They soon became well known in the American Colonies and were mentioned in correspondence between John Adams and Jonathan Sewall. In 1761 Blackstone married Sarah Clitherow, "with home he passed near nine teen years in the enjoyment of the purest domestic and conjugal felicity." After his marriage he purchased Priory Park in the pleasant little town of Wallingford on the Thames, of which he had been recorder since 1749. His family was reared there. Sir William does not quite fit into the setting of an 18th-century squire, for he disliked any form of outdoor exercise and devoted most of his time to reading. Small wonder that he suffered from gout. Blackstone's interest in prison reform is, naturally, not so well known as his authorship of the Commentaries. His experience of the law aroused in him a passionate desire to im prove the conditions of English prison life. Unlike the majority in his day, when there were 200 capital offenses, he did not regard severity of punishment as a deterrent of crime. When John Howard published his famous report on prison reform, Blackstone strongly supported him. The fourth and final volume of the Com mentaries, which appeared in 1769, met with the approval of George III because Blackstone exalted the royal prerogative and "held that the American plantations were subject to the control of Parliament." Blackstone has been accused by some critics of being ultraconservative in outlook. He was rather a firm believer in the British Constitu tion and "an advocate of moderate reform based on experience." "The indictment of George III in the Declaration of Independence is well sup ported," writes the American biographer, David A. Lockmiller, "by Blackstone's de scription of the rights of Englishmen, and it was for these rights . . . that the patriots were contending . . . Regardless of his per sonal sentiments, he had acquainted the Americans of their rights as Englishmen, and the patriot leaders, apparently forgetting or ignoring other parts of the Commentaries. asserted these rights against George III, and his fumbling Ministers . . . Although the Revolutionary War freed the United States from British control, the law of England remained to protect and to serve the people of the new country." In 1924, when the American Bar Association presented to the British bar a statue of Black stone, George \W. Wickersham, chairman of the English-Speaking Union of the United States, made a speech which has special meaning for us today. After referring to the reverence of the English-speaking peoples "for liberty regulated by law," he concluded: "Let it" [the statue] "stand here" [in the Law Courts in London "as a symbol of that law and justice upon which rests the entire fabric of civil liberty. Let it stand here as the symbol of the ties which unite the peoples of our respective countries in devotion to the common ideals of free men of English speech."