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THE following sheets contain the substance of a course of lectures on the Laws of England, which were read by the author in the university of OXFORD. His original plan took its rise in the year 1753; and, notwithstanding the novelty of such an attempt in this age and country, and the prejudices usually conceived against any innovations in the established mode of education, he had the satisfaction to find, and he acknowledges it with a mixture of pride and gratitude, that his endeavours were encouraged and patronised by those, both in the university, and out of it, whose good opinion and esteem he was principally desirous to obtain.
The death of Mr. VINER in 1756, and his ample benefaction to the university, for promoting the study of the law, produced about two years afterwards a regular and public establishment of what the author had privately undertaken. The knowledge of our laws and constitution was adopted as a liberal science by general academical authority; competent endowments were decreed for the support of a lecturer, and the perpetual encouragement of students; and the compiler of the ensuing Commentaries had the honour to be elected the first Vinerian professor.
In this situation he was led, both by duty and inclination, to investigate the elements of the law, and the grounds of our civil polity, with greater assiduity and attention than many have thought it necessary to do. And yet all, who of late years have attended the public administration of justice, must be sensible that a masterly acquaintance with the general spirit of laws and principles of universal jurisprudence, combined with an accurate knowledge of our own municipal constitutions, their original, reason, and history, hath given a beauty and energy to many modern judicial decisions, with which our ancestors were wholly unacquainted. If, in the pursuit of these inquiries, the author hath been able to rectify any errors which either himself or others may have heretofore imbibed, his pains will be sufficiently answered and if in some points he is still mistaken, the candid and judicious reader will make due allowances for the difficulties of a search so new, so extensive, and so laborious.
Nov. 2, 1765.
NOTWITHSTANDING the diffidence expressed in the foregoing Preface, no sooner was the work completed, but many of its positions were vehemently attacked by zealots of all (even opposite) denominations, religions as well as civil; by some with a greater, by others with a less degree of acrimony. To such of these animadverters as have fallen within the author's notice, (for he doubts not but some have escaped it), he owes at least this obligation that they have occasioned him from time to time to revise his work, in respect to the particulars objected to; to retract or expunge from it what appeared to be really erroneous; to amend or supply it when inaccurate or defective; to illustrate and explain it when obscure. But, where he thought the objections ill-founded, he hath left and shall leave the book to defend itself: being fully of opinion, that, if his principles be false and his doctrines unwarrantable, no apology from himself can make them right; if founded in truth and rectitude, no censure from others can make them wrong.
LIFE OF THE AUTHOR.
Sir William Blackstone was born on the 10th of July, 1723, in Cheapside, in the parish of St. Michael le Querne, at the house of his father, Mr. Charles Blackstone, a silk-man, and citizen and bowyer of Lon. don ; who was the third son of Mr. John Blackstone, an eminent apothecary in Newgate-street, descended from a family of that name in the west of. England, at or near Salisbury, and who died some months previous to the birth of William, the author of these justly esteemed Commentaries. His mother was Mary, eldest daughter of Lovelace Bigg, Esquire, of Chilton Foliot, in Wiltshire ; she died before the learned commentator attained his twelfth year.
Sir William had three brothers, Charles, John, and Henry. John died an infant, Charles and Henry were educated at Winchester, under the care of their uncle Dr. Bigg, who was warden of that society, and were afterwards both fellows of New College, Oxford; Charles became a fellow of Winchester, and vicar of Wimering in Hampshire: Henry, after having practised physic some years, went into holy orders, and died in 1778, vicar of Adderbury in Oxfordshire, a living in the gift of New College.
The being early in life deprived of both parents proved, in its consequences, the reverse of misfortune to our author: to that circumstance probably he was indebted for his future advancement, and that high literary character and reputation in his profession, which he has left behind him; to that circumstance the public too is probably indebted for the benefit it has received, and will receive, as long as the law of England remains, from the labours of his pen. For, had his father lived, it is most likely, that the third son of a London tradesman, not of great affluence, would have been bred in the same line of life, and those parts, which have so much signalized the possessor of them, would have been lost in a warehouse or behind a counter.
But, even from his birth, the care both of his education and fortune was kindly undertaken by his maternal uncle, Mr. Thomas Bigg, an eminent surgeon in London, and afterwards, on the death of his elder brothers, owner of the Chilton estate, which is still enjoyed by that family.
The affectionate, it may be said the parental, care this worthy man took of all his nephews, particularly in giving them liberal educations, supplied the great loss they had so early sustained, and compensated in a great degree for their want of more ample fortunes. And it was always remembered, and often mentioned by them all, with the sincerest gratitude.
In 1730, being about seven years old, William was put to school at the Charter-House ; and in 1735 was, by the nomination of Sir Robert Walpole, on the recommendation of Charles Wither, of Hall, in Hampshire, Esquire, his cousin by the mother's side, admitted upon the foundation there.
In this excellent seminary he applied himself to every branch of youthful education, with the same assiduity which accompanied his studies through life. His talents and industry rendered him the favourite of his masters, who encouraged and assisted him with the utmost attention ; at
the age of fifteen he was at the head of the school, and, although so young, was thought well qualified to be removed to the University; and he was accordingly entered a commoner at Pembroke College in Oxford, on the 30th of November, 1736, and was the next day matriculated.
At this time he was elected to one of the Charter-House exhibitions by the Governors of that foundation, to commence from the Michaelmas preceding, but was permitted to continue a scholar there till after the 12th of December, being the anniversary commemoration of the founder, to give him an opportunity of speaking the customary oration, which he had prepared, and which did him much credit.
About this time also he obtained Mr. Benson's gold prize medal of Milton, for verses on that poet.
Thus, before he quitted school, did his genius begin to appear, and receive public marks of approbation and reward. And so well pleased was the Society of Pembroke College with their young pupil, that, in the February following, they unanimously elected him to one of Lady Holford's exhibitions for Charter-House scholars in that house.
Here he prosecuted his studies with unremitting ardour; and although the classics, and particularly the Greek and Roman poets, were his favourites, they did not entirely engross his attention: logic, mathematics, and the other sciences were not neglected; from the first of these (studied rationally, abstracted from the jargon of the schools,) he laid the foundation of that close method of reasoning he was so remarkable for: and from the mathematics he not only reaped the benefit of using his mind to a close investigation of every subject that occurred to him, till he arrived at the degree of demonstration the nature of it would admit; but he converted that dry study, as it is usually thought, into an amusement, by pursuing the branch of it which relates to architecture.
This science he was particularly fond of, and made himself so far master of it, that, at the early age of twenty, he compiled a treatise, entitled Elements of Architecture, intended for his own use only, and not for publication, but esteemed by those judges who have perused it, in no respect unworthy his maturer judgment, and more exercised pen.
Having determined on his future plan of life, and made choice of the law for his profession, he was entered in the Middle Temple on the 20th of November, 1741. He now found it necessary to quit the more amusing pursuits of his youth, for the severer studies to which he had dedicated himself, and betook himself seriously to reading law.
How disagreeable a change this must have been to a young man of brilliant parts, and a fine imagination, glowing with all the classical and poetical beauties he had stored his mind with, is easier conceived than expressed he alone, who felt, could describe his sensations on that occasion; which he did in a copy of verses, since published by Dodsley, in the 4th volume of his Miscellanies, intituled, The Lawyer's Farewell to his Muse; in which the struggle of his mind is expressed so strongly, so naturally, with such elegance of sense and language, and harmony of versification, as must convince every reader, that his passion for the Muses was too deeply rooted to be laid aside without much reluctance, and that, if he had pursued that flowery path, he would not perhaps have proved inferior to the best of our English poets.
Several little fugitive pieces, besides this, have at times been communicated by him to his friends, and he has left (but not with a view of publi
cation) a small collection of juvenile pieces, both originals and translations, which do him no discredit, inscribed with this line from Horace,
“Nec lusisse pudet, sed non incidere ludum." Some notes on Shakespeare, which, just before his death, he communicated to Mr. Steevens, and which that gentleman inserted in his last edition of that author, shew how well he understood the meaning, as wel as the beauties of his favourite among the English poets.*
In November, 1743, he was elected into the Society of All-Souls College ; and, in the Norember following, he spoke the Anniversary Speech in commemoration of Archbishop Chichele, the founder, and the other benefactors to tha: house of learning, and was admitted actual fellow.
From this period he divided his time between the University and the Temple, where he took chambers, in order to attend the courts. In the former he pursued his academical studies, and on the 12th of June, 1745, commenced Bachelor of Civil Law; in the latter he applied himsel' closely to his profession, both in the Hall and in his private studies, and, on the 28th of November, 1746, was called to the Bar.
The first year of a counsel's attendance on the Courts afford little matter worthy to be inserted in a narrative of this kind ; and Mr. Blackstone, not possessing either a graceful delivery or a flow of elocution (both which he much wanted) nor having any powerful friends or connexions to recommend him, made his way very slowly, attracting little notice and still less practice: he, however, availed himself of the leisure thus left him in storing his mind with that knowledge of the law, which he has since communicated to the world, and contracted an acquaintance with several of the most eminent men in that profession, who saw, through the then intervening cloud, that great genius, which afterwards broke forth with so much splendour.
At Oxford, his active mind had more room to display itself, and, being elected into the office of Bursar soon after he had taken his degree, and finding the muniments of the College in a confused irregular state, he unundertook and completed a thorough search, and a new arrangement, from whence that Society reaped great advantage. He found also, in the execution of this office, the method of keeping accounts, in use among the older Colleges, though very exact, yet rather tedious and perplexed, he, therefore, drew up a dissertation on the subject, in which he entered mi. nutely into the theory, and elucidated every intricacy that might occur. A copy of this tract is still preserved for the benefit of his successors in the Bursarship
But it was not merely the estates, muniments, and accounts of the College, in which he was so usefully employed during his residence in that Society. The Codrington Library had for many years remained an unfinished building. He hastened its completion, rectified several mistakes
• The verses, published in the name of J. had so long received without any pretensions ; Clitherow (the editor of Sir W. B.'s Reports,) and in making this acknowledgement, Mr. in the Oxford Collection, on the death of the Clitherow also, in a note in his edition of Sir Prince of Wales, in 1751, and which were W. B.'s Reports, expressed a hope that it might justly esteemed one of the best compositions atone for his having so long permitted it ta in that collection, were written by Mr. Black. have remained generally unknown, particular, stone, who at that time exacted a promise of ly as, on those occasions, it was by no means secrecy; which promise Mr. Clitherow con- unusual, or reckoned a discredit to a young sidering himself absolved from by the death of man, to have his name prefixed to the produce the learned judge, felt a sensible satisfaction tion of another person. in restoring to the right owner that applause he
in the architecture, and formed a new arrangement of the books under their respective classes.
The late Duke of Wharton, who had engaged himself by bond to defray the expense of building the apartments between the Library and Common Room, being obliged soon after to leave his country, and dying in very distressed circumstances, the discharge of this obligation was long despaired of. It happened, however, in a course of years, that his Grace's executors were enabled to pay his debts, when, by the care and activity of Mr. Blactstone, the building was completed, the College thereby enabled to make its demand, and the whole benefaction recovered.
In May, 1749, as a small reward for his services, and to give him further opportunities of advancing the interests of the College, he was appointed Steward of their Manors. And, in the same year, on the resignation of his uncle, beymour Richmond, Esq., he was elected Recorder of the borough of Wallngford, in Berkshire, and received the King's approbation on the 30th of May.
The 26th of April, 1750, he commenced Doctor of Civil Law, and thereby became a member of the Convocation, which enabled him to extend his views, beyond the narrow circle of his own society, to the general benefit of the University at large.
In this year he published An Essay on Collateral Consanguinity, relative to the claim made by those who, by a pedigree, proved themselves of kin to the founder of All-Souls College, of being elected, in preference to all others, into that society.
Those claims became now so numerous, that the college, with reason, complained of being frequently precluded from making choice of the most ingenious and deserving candidates.
In this treatise, being his first publication, he endeavoured to prove, that, as the kindred to the founder, a popish ecclesiastic, could not but be collateral, the length of time elapsed since his death must, according to the rules both of the civil and canon law, have extinguished consanguinity; or that the whole race of mankind were equally the founder's kinsmen.
This work, although it did not answer the end proposed, or convince the then Visitor, yet did the author great credit, and shewed he had read much, and well digested what he had read. And, most probably, the arguments contained in it had some weight with his Grace who succeeded to the see of Canterbury, and who, a few years afterwards, on application to him as Visitor of the College, formed a new regulation, which gave great satisfaction, limiting the number of founder's kin, whereby the inconvenience complained of was in a great measure removed, without annihilating a claim founded on the express words of the college statutes. And it must be observed, that, in forming this new regulation, his Grace made choice of Mr. Justice Blackstone, as his common-law assessor, together with that eminent civilian, Dr. Hay, well knowing how much he was master of the subject then under consideration.
After having attended the Courts in Westminster-hall for seven years, and finding the profits of his profession very inadequate to the expense, in the summer of the year 1753, he determined to retire to his fellowship and an academical life, still continuing the practice of his profession, as a provincial counsel. He had previously planned, what he now began to execute, his Lectures on the Laws of England ; a work which has so justly signalized his name, and rewarded his labours.