"It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. "
“The husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband.”
- Law is the embodiment of the moral sentiment of the people.
Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780)
Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England is perhaps the most well known and celebrated legal work of all time. Born in London on July 10, 1723, William Blackstone was the youngest son of Charles, a silk merchant and Mary Blackstone, both who were deceased by the time William was twelve. He received his early education at Charterhouse and later at Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1741, Blackstone entered Middle Temple to study law and in 1744 became a fellow of All Souls College. He set up a small practice in Westminster and was called to the bar in 1746. In 1750, Blackstone received a doctor of law degree from Oxford and began publishing numerous works on the law. He spent the next few years delivering lectures on the laws of England at Oxford and, after receiving much praise for his lectures, was elected the first Vinerian professor of English Law in 1758. In 1761, Blackstone was appointed to the king's counsel and was elected to Parliament. He also served as solicitor general to the Queen (1763) and bencher of the Middle Temple. From 1765 to 1769, Blackstone published his Commentaries on the Laws of England, which were based on the lectures he had delivered at Oxford. This four-volume set provided a clear and comprehensive overview of English law for the layman. It was very well received in England and through out the American colonies, with sets purchased by sixteen signers of the Declaration of Independence. Commentaries on the Laws of England has gone through over thirty editions, eight during Blackstone's lifetime, and was immensely popular and influential. In 1770, Blackstone was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas and then to the King's Bench, where he was knighted. He remained a judge on the Court of Common Pleas until his death in London on February 14, 1780.
Additional Biographical Sources
Sir William Blackstone
Born: 10th July 1723 at Cheapside, London
Head of New Inn Hall, Oxford
Died: 14th February 1780 at Wallingford, Berkshire
Sir William was a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, who came from an old Wiltshire family, his father being a prosperous London tradesman. He was born in Cheapside, educated at Charterhouse and Pembroke College, Oxford, and elected a fellow of All Souls in 1744. He was a good classical scholar, something of a poet, well read in English literature, and was called to the Bar in 1746. He had not a great practice, but got the Recordership of Wallingford, and passed much of his life in the College of which he was an excellent Steward and Bursar. He also did much to reform the (then) inefficient administration of the Clarendon Press.
In his thirtieth year, being disappointed of the Chair of Civil Law, for which he had been recommended to the Crown, be began, at the suggestion of the Solicitor-General, afterwards Lord Mansfield, to deliver a course of lectures on English Law, and these were so successful that he became the first occupant of the newly founded Vinerian Professorship in 1758. His success also brought him practice, a seat in the House of Commons and the Headship of New Inn Hall, Oxford, in 1761. The first volume of his ’Commentaries on the Laws of England’ appeared in 1765, being the enlarged substance of his lectures, the fourth and final volume came in 1769, and edition after edition followed down to the middle of the nineteenth century. It was the first time that English Law had been made readable and intelligible to the lay mind. The book was quoted in the Courts and treated almost as an authority. The rising tide of the appeal to 'Natural Rights' as against precedent, which foreshadowed and accompanied the French Revolution, led the new school of jurists, headed by Bentham and Austen, to discredit the work as having in it no 'original philosophy of Law' - a property which its author might well have asked his critics to define. Blackstone was not, indeed, a great Civilian and did not pretend to be. He was only the most lucid and harmonious expositor of the English Systems that ever lived. It has been said in more recent times that the Commentaries “summed up and passed on the Common Law, as developed mainly by the work of the legal profession, before it was remodelled by direct legislation”.
Blackstone retired from his Professorship and Headship, in 1766, and was made a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1770. He was not by any means a great judge, being unfitted by temperament and habit for quick decisions. He spent the last twenty years of his life with his family in Castle Priory House which he built at Wallingford and which still stands as an hotel with its lawn sloping down to the river. His fine statue by Bacon in the Library of All Souls seems to dominate that magnificent room, to the enrichment of whose shelves he largely contributed. If it is true that in his later life he became both irritable and heavy, it is certain that, during the eighteen years spent in his beloved College, he was the most genial and delightful of companions