Commentaries on the Laws of England

Commentaries on the Laws of England

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The Commentaries on the Laws of England are an influential 18th-century treatise on the common law
Common law
Common law is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action...

 of England
England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 by Sir William Blackstone
William Blackstone
Sir William Blackstone KC SL was an English jurist, judge and Tory politician of the eighteenth century. He is most noted for writing the Commentaries on the Laws of England. Born into a middle class family in London, Blackstone was educated at Charterhouse School before matriculating at Pembroke...

, originally published by the Clarendon Press at Oxford
Oxford
The city of Oxford is the county town of Oxfordshire, England. The city, made prominent by its medieval university, has a population of just under 165,000, with 153,900 living within the district boundary. It lies about 50 miles north-west of London. The rivers Cherwell and Thames run through...

, 1765–1769. The work is divided into four volumes, on the rights of persons, the rights of things, of private wrongs and of public wrongs.

The Commentaries were long regarded as the leading work on the development of English law and played a role in the development of the American legal system. They were in fact the first methodical treatise on the common law suitable for a lay readership since at least the Middle Ages. The common law of England has relied on precedent
Precedent
In common law legal systems, a precedent or authority is a principle or rule established in a legal case that a court or other judicial body may apply when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts...

 more than statute
Statute
A statute is a formal written enactment of a legislative authority that governs a state, city, or county. Typically, statutes command or prohibit something, or declare policy. The word is often used to distinguish law made by legislative bodies from case law, decided by courts, and regulations...

 and codifications and has been far less amenable than the civil law
Civil law (legal system)
Civil law is a legal system inspired by Roman law and whose primary feature is that laws are codified into collections, as compared to common law systems that gives great precedential weight to common law on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different...

, developed from the Roman law
Roman law
Roman law is the legal system of ancient Rome, and the legal developments which occurred before the 7th century AD — when the Roman–Byzantine state adopted Greek as the language of government. The development of Roman law comprises more than a thousand years of jurisprudence — from the Twelve...

, to the needs of a treatise. The Commentaries were influential largely because they were in fact readable, and because they met a need. The work is as much an apologia for the legal system of the time as it is an explanation; even when the law was obscure, Blackstone sought to make it seem rational, just, and inevitable that things should be how they were.

The Commentaries are often quoted as the definitive pre-Revolutionary
American Revolution
The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America...

 source of common law by United States courts
Courts of the United States
Courts of the United States include both the United States federal courts, comprising the judicial branch of the federal government of the United States and state and territorial courts of the individual U.S...

. Opinions
Legal opinion
In law, an opinion is usually a written explanation by a judge or group of judges that accompanies an order or ruling in a case, laying out the rationale and legal principles for the ruling....

 of the Supreme Court of the United States
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 quotes from Blackstone's work whenever they wish to engage in historical discussion that goes back that far, or farther (for example, when discussing the intent of the Framers
Founding Fathers of the United States
The Founding Fathers of the United States of America were political leaders and statesmen who participated in the American Revolution by signing the United States Declaration of Independence, taking part in the American Revolutionary War, establishing the United States Constitution, or by some...

 of the Constitution). The book was famously used as the key in Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold V was a general during the American Revolutionary War. He began the war in the Continental Army but later defected to the British Army. While a general on the American side, he obtained command of the fort at West Point, New York, and plotted to surrender it to the British forces...

's book cipher
Book cipher
A book cipher is a cipher in which the key is some aspect of a book or other piece of text; books being common and widely available in modern times, users of book ciphers take the position that the details of the key is sufficiently well hidden from attackers in practice. This is in some ways an...

, which he used to communicate secretly with his conspirator John André
John André
John André was a British army officer hanged as a spy during the American War of Independence. This was due to an incident in which he attempted to assist Benedict Arnold's attempted surrender of the fort at West Point, New York to the British.-Early life:André was born on May 2, 1750 in London to...

 during their plot to betray the Continental Army
Continental Army
The Continental Army was formed after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War by the colonies that became the United States of America. Established by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775, it was created to coordinate the military efforts of the Thirteen Colonies in...

 during the American Revolution
American Revolution
The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America...

.

Contents



The Rights of Persons


The Rights of Persons is by and large concerned with the relations of status
Social status
In sociology or anthropology, social status is the honor or prestige attached to one's position in society . It may also refer to a rank or position that one holds in a group, for example son or daughter, playmate, pupil, etc....

 in the English social structure, from the King of England and the aristocracy
Aristocracy
Aristocracy , is a form of government in which a few elite citizens rule. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning "rule of the best". In origin in Ancient Greece, it was conceived of as rule by the best qualified citizens, and contrasted with monarchy...

 down to the untitled commoners. Also dealt here were common relationships such as that of husband
Husband
A husband is a male participant in a marriage. The rights and obligations of the husband regarding his spouse and others, and his status in the community and in law, vary between cultures and has varied over time...

 and wife
Wife
A wife is a female partner in a marriage. The rights and obligations of the wife regarding her spouse and others, and her status in the community and in law, varies between cultures and has varied over time.-Origin and etymology:...

, master and servant (in modern day terminology, employer and employee), and guardian
Legal guardian
A legal guardian is a person who has the legal authority to care for the personal and property interests of another person, called a ward. Usually, a person has the status of guardian because the ward is incapable of caring for his or her own interests due to infancy, incapacity, or disability...

 and ward.

The Rights of Things


The Rights of Things, Blackstone's longest volume, deals with property
Property
Property is any physical or intangible entity that is owned by a person or jointly by a group of people or a legal entity like a corporation...

. The vast majority of the text treats of real property
Real property
In English Common Law, real property, real estate, realty, or immovable property is any subset of land that has been legally defined and the improvements to it made by human efforts: any buildings, machinery, wells, dams, ponds, mines, canals, roads, various property rights, and so forth...

, this being the most valuable sort in the feudal law upon which the English law of land was founded. Property in chattels was already beginning to overshadow property in land, but its law lacked the complex feudal background of the common law of land, and was not dealt with by Blackstone at anywhere near the space he devoted to land.

Of Private Wrongs


Of Private Wrongs dealt with tort
Tort
A tort, in common law jurisdictions, is a wrong that involves a breach of a civil duty owed to someone else. It is differentiated from a crime, which involves a breach of a duty owed to society in general...

s as they existed in Blackstone's time. The various methods of trial
Trial (law)
In law, a trial is when parties to a dispute come together to present information in a tribunal, a formal setting with the authority to adjudicate claims or disputes. One form of tribunal is a court...

 that existed at civil law were also dealt with in this volume, as were the jurisdictions of the several courts, from the lowest to the highest. Blackstone also adds a brief chapter on equity, the parallel legal system that existed in English law at the time, seeking to address wrongs that the common law did not handle; the chapter on equity seems almost an afterthought.

Of Public Wrongs


Of Public Wrongs is Blackstone's treatise on criminal law
Criminal law
Criminal law, is the body of law that relates to crime. It might be defined as the body of rules that defines conduct that is not allowed because it is held to threaten, harm or endanger the safety and welfare of people, and that sets out the punishment to be imposed on people who do not obey...

. Here, Blackstone the apologist takes centre stage; he seeks to explain how the criminal laws of England were just and merciful, despite becoming later known as the Bloody Code for their severity. He does however accept that "It is a melancholy truth, that among the variety of actions which men are daily liable to commit, no less than an hundred and sixty have been declared by Act of Parliament to be felonious without benefit of clergy
Benefit of clergy
In English law, the benefit of clergy was originally a provision by which clergymen could claim that they were outside the jurisdiction of the secular courts and be tried instead in an ecclesiastical court under canon law...

; or, in other words, to be worthy of instant death". Blackstone frequently had to resort to the devices of assuring his reader that the laws as written were not actually enforced, and that the King's power of pardon
Pardon
Clemency means the forgiveness of a crime or the cancellation of the penalty associated with it. It is a general concept that encompasses several related procedures: pardoning, commutation, remission and reprieves...

 existed to correct any hardships or injustices.

Legacy


Blackstone for the first time made the common law
Common law
Common law is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action...

 readable and understandable by non-lawyers. At first, his Commentaries were hotly contested, some seeing in it an evil or covert attempt to reduce or codify the common law which was anathema to common law purists.

For decades, a study of the Commentaries was required reading for all first year law students. Lord Avonmore
Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount Avonmore
Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount Avonmore, PC KC was an Irish judge and politician.-Life:He was the eldest son of Francis Yelverton of Blackwater, County Cork. Educated at Trinity College Dublin, he was for some years an assistant master under Andrew Buck in the Hibernian Academy...

 said of Blackstone: "He it was who first gave to the law the air of a science. He found it a skeleton and clothed it with life, colour and complexion. He embraced the cold statue and by his touch, it grew into youth, health and beauty." Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism...

, who had been a critic of the Commentaries when it was first published, credits Blackstone with having: "... taught jurisprudence to speak the language of the scholar and the gentleman; put a polish upon that rugged science, cleansed her from the dust and cobwebs of the office and, if he has not enriched her with that precision which is drawn only from the sterling treasury of the sciences, has decked her out to advantage from the toilet of classical erudition, enlivened her with metaphors and allusions and sent her abroad in some measure to instruct."

While there is much valuable historical information in the Commentaries, later historians have tended to be somewhat critical of the uses Blackstone made of history
History
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

. There is a lot of what would later be called "Whig history
Whig history
Whig history is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians stress the rise of constitutional government,...

" in the Commentaries; the easy and contradictory assurance that England's current political settlement represented the optimal state of rational and just government, while claiming simultaneously that this optimal state was an ideal that had always existed in the past, despite the many struggles in England's actual history between overreaching kings and wayward Parliaments.

But Blackstone's chief contribution was to create a succinct, readable, and above all handy epitome of the common law tradition. While useful in England, Blackstone's text answered an urgent need in the developing United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 and Canada
Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

. In the United States, the common law tradition was being spread into frontier areas, but it was not feasible for lawyer
Lawyer
A lawyer, according to Black's Law Dictionary, is "a person learned in the law; as an attorney, counsel or solicitor; a person who is practicing law." Law is the system of rules of conduct established by the sovereign government of a society to correct wrongs, maintain the stability of political...

s and judge
Judge
A judge is a person who presides over court proceedings, either alone or as part of a panel of judges. The powers, functions, method of appointment, discipline, and training of judges vary widely across different jurisdictions. The judge is supposed to conduct the trial impartially and in an open...

s to carry around the large libraries that contained the common law precedent
Precedent
In common law legal systems, a precedent or authority is a principle or rule established in a legal case that a court or other judicial body may apply when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts...

s. The four volumes of Blackstone put the gist of that tradition in portable form. They were required reading for most lawyers in the Colonies, and for many, they were the only reading. Blackstone's Whiggish
British Whig Party
The Whigs were a party in the Parliament of England, Parliament of Great Britain, and Parliament of the United Kingdom, who contested power with the rival Tories from the 1680s to the 1850s. The Whigs' origin lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute rule...

 but conservative
Conservatism
Conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society. Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others oppose modernism...

 vision of English law as a force to protect people, their liberty
Liberty
Liberty is a moral and political principle, or Right, that identifies the condition in which human beings are able to govern themselves, to behave according to their own free will, and take responsibility for their actions...

, and their property, had a deep impact on the ideologies
Ideology
An ideology is a set of ideas that constitutes one's goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things , as in common sense and several philosophical tendencies , or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to...

 that were cited in support of the American Revolution
American Revolution
The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America...

, and ultimately, the United States Constitution
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

.

Two decades after its publication, Blackstone's Commentaries were the focus of a mocking polemic by Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism...

, called Fragment on Government (1776). This dissection of Blackstone's first book made Bentham's name notorious, though it was originally published anonymously.

Quotations

  • "That the King can do no wrong
    Sovereign immunity
    Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a legal doctrine by which the sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution....

    , is a necessary and fundamental principle of the English constitution."
  • "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer."
    Blackstone's formulation
    In criminal law, Blackstone's formulation is the principle: "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer", expressed by the English jurist William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in the 1760s.-Historical expressions of the principle:The...

  • "There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property
    Property
    Property is any physical or intangible entity that is owned by a person or jointly by a group of people or a legal entity like a corporation...

    ; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe. And yet there are very few, that will give themselves the trouble to consider the original and foundation of this right." (Commentaries, Book II Ch. II)

Notable editions



1. The Fifth Edition, Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, MDCCLXXIII., printed for William Strahan, Thomas Cadell, and Daniel Prince. 8vo., 4 vols.

2. The Twelfth Edition (with portraits of the judges), with the last corrections of the author and with notes and additions by Edward Christian, Esq., Barrister at Law and Professor of the Laws of England in the University of Cambridge, London, 1793–1795. 4 vols., 8vo.

3. Blackstone’s Commentaries : with notes of reference, to the Constitution and laws, of the federal government of the United States, and of the Commonwealth of Virginia : in five volumes, with an appendix to each volume, containing short tracts upon such subjects as appeared necessary to form a connected view of the laws of Virginia, as a member of the federal union / by St. George Tucker.

4. The Sixteenth Edition, with notes by J. F. Archbold,(added to Christian's), London, 1811. 4 vols., royal 8vo.

5. The Seventeenth Edition, with notes by J. T. Coleridge, London, 1825.

6. The Eighteenth Edition, with notes by J. Chitty, London, 1826 (often reprinted in America).

7. Commentaries on the laws of England : in four books / by Sir William Blackstone ... ; together with such notes of enduring value as have been published in the several English editions ; and also, a copious analysis of the contents ; and additional notes with references to English and American decisions and statutes, to date, which illustrate or change the law of the text ; also a full table of abbreviations and some considerations regarding the study of the law, by Thomas M. Cooley. Published: Chicago: Callaghan and Co., 1871, Second Edition 1876, Third Edition 1884, Fourth Edition edited by James DeWitt Andrews 1899.

8. Commentaries on the laws of England / by Sir William Blackstone, KT. Edition Information: From the author’s 8th ed., 1778 / edited for American lawyers by William G. Hammond ; with copious notes, and references to all comments on the text in the American reports, 1787–1890. Published: San Francisco : Bancroft–Whitney Company, 1890. Description: 4 vols.

9. Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books / by Sir William Blackstone. Notes selected from the editions of Archibold, Christian, Coleridge, Chitty, Stewart, Kerr, and others, Barron Field’s Analysis, and Additional Notes, and a Life of the Author by George Sharswood. In Two Volumes. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1893).

10. Commentaries on the laws of England : in four books / by Sir William Blackstone ; with notes selected from the editions of Archbold, Christian, Coleridge, Chitty, Stewart, Kerr, and others ; and in addition, notes and references to all text books and decisions wherein the Commentaries have been cited, and all statutes modifying the text by William Draper Lewis. Published: Philadelphia : Rees Welsh and Company, 1897. Description: 4 vols.

11. Commentaries on the laws of England by Sir William Blackstone, Kt. ; edited by William Carey Jones. Published: San Francisco : Bancroft–Whitney, 1915–16. Description: 2 vols.

12. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England; edited by Wayne Morrison. 4 vols. Published: London: Routledge–Cavendish; London, England: 2001. Description 4 vols.

Abridgements


Ralph Thomas in Notes & Queries
Notes & Queries
Notes & Queries is a weekly column in The Guardian newspaper which publishes readers' questions together with answers submitted by other readers....

, 4th Series, II August 8, 1868 gave the following list of the abridgements of Blackstone’s Commentaries.
  1. A Summary of the Constitutional Law of England: being an Abridgment of Blackstone's Commentaries. By the Rev. Dr. J. Trusler, 1788, 12mo ; 228 and index. "Everything in Blackstone necessary for the general reader is here comprised ... and nothing omitted but what is peculiarly adapted to the profession of a lawyer." (Advertisement.)
  2. The Commentaries of Sir W. Blackstone, Knight, on the Law and Constitution of England, carefully abridged in a new manner, and continued down to the present time... By Wm. Curry 1796, 8vo; viii. contents, 566. 2nd edit. 1809. Consists of selections of the most essential parts in the words of the author.
  3. Commentaries on the Law of England, principally in the order, and comprising the whole substance, of Commentaries of Sir W. Blackstone. [By J. Addams], 1819, 8vo.
  4. An Abridgment of Blackstone's Commentaries. By John Gifford
    John Gifford
    John Gifford was an English political writer. He was born John Richards Green until changing his name at the age of 23....

    [pseud. i. e. Edward Foss], 1821, 8vo. See No. VI.
  5. An Abridgment of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, in a series of Letters from a Father to his Daughter, chiefly intended for the Use and Advancement of Female Education. By a Barrister at Law, F.R., F.A., and F.L.S. [Sir E. E. Wilmot], 1822, 12mo; viii. 304.
  6. Same by Sir J. E.E. W. . . . A new edition [the 2nd] corrected ... by his son Sir J. E. E. W. 3rd edit. 1855.
  7. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, abridged for the Use of Students, &c. By John Gifford, author of the Life of . . . . Pitt [pseud. John Richards Green], 1823, 8vo.
  8. The British Constitution; or, an Epitome of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, for the Use of Schools. By Vincent Wanostrocht, LL.D., Alfred House Academy, Camberwell, 1823, 12mo; xi. 845.
  9. An American Abridgment, 1832. [Mr Thomas may be referring to John Anthon’s An Analytical Abridgment of the Commentaries of Sir William Blackstone on the laws of England: in four books: together with an analytical synopsis of each book, printed and published by Isaac Riley in 1809, second edition 1832.]
  10. Select Extracts from Blackstone's Commentaries, carefully adapted to the Use of Schools and Young Persons; with a Glossary, Questions, and Notes, and a General Introduction. By Samuel Warren, 1837, 12mo; xxvi. 428 (no index).
  11. Commentaries on the Laws of England, in the Order and Compiled from the Text of Blackstone, and embracing the New Statutes and Alterations to the present time. By J. Bethune Bayly, of the Middle Temple, 1840, roy. 8vo; li. 700.
  12. A Synopsis of Blackstone's Commentaries. London. [1847]. A large single sheet in folio.
  13. The Law Student's First Book, being chiefly an Abridgment of Blackstone's Commentaries; incorporating the Alterations in the Law down to the present time. By the Editors of The Law Student's Magazine, 1848, 12mo; xxiv. 508, xvi.
  14. Blackstone's Commentaries systematically arranged and adapted to the existing State of the Law and Constitution, with great Additions. By S. Warren, . . . 1855, 8vo 2nd edition, 1856. See IX. The original portions of Blackstone are indicated.
  15. The Student's Blackstone; Selections from the Commentaries on the Laws of England. By Sir W. B.; being those portions of the work which relate to the British Constitution and the Rights of Persons. By R. M. Kerr, 1858, 12mo; xix. 575. The Student’s Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, in four books, by Sir W. Blackstone, &c., abridged ... By R. M. Kerr. 2nd edit. 1865, 12mo; xx. 612.


Other abridgments include:
  • Blackstone economized: being a compendium of the laws of England to the present time by Sir William Blackstone, David Mitchell Aird Published: London: Longmans, Green, & Co.: 1878

  • Essentials of the Law: A Review of Blackstone's Commentaries for the Use of Students at Law (1882) Author: Marshall Davis Ewell Published: Boston: Charles C Soule: 1882

  • Selections from Blackstone edited by William Carey Jones Published: San Francisco: Bancroft–Whitney Co. 1926.

  • The Sovereignty of the Law: Selections from Blackstone's Commentaries on the laws of England edited by Gareth Jones, Published: London: Macmillan, 1973 ISBN 0-8357-4720-4, 9780835747202

External links