William Blackstone

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It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer
Blackstone (Thomas Gainsborough, 1774)

Sir William Blackstone (July 10, 1723February 14, 1780) was an English jurist and professor who produced the historical treatise on the common law called Commentaries on the Laws of England.


  • Law, in its most general and comprehensive sense, signifies a rule of action; and is applied indiscriminately to all kinds of action, whether animate, or inanimate, rational or irrational. Thus we say, the laws of motion, of gravitation, of optics, or mechanics, as well as the laws of nature and of nations. And it is that rule of action, which is prescribed by some superior, and which the inferior is bound to obey.
  • Man was formed for society and is neither capable of living alone, nor has the courage to do it.
    • Introduction, Section II: Of the Nature of Laws in General
  • Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is entirely a dependent being...This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.
    • Introduction, Section II: Of the Nature of Laws in General
  • If the parliament will positively enact a thing to be done which is unreasonable, I know of no power that can control it: and the examples usually alleged in support of this sense of the rule do none of them prove, that where the main object of a statute is unreasonable the judges are at liberty to reject it; for that were to set the judicial power above that of the legislature, which would be subversive of all government. But where some collateral matter arises out of the general words, and happens to be unreasonable; there the judges are in decency to conclude that this consequence was not foreseen by the parliament, and therefore they are at liberty to expound the statute by equity, and only quoad hoc disregard it.
  • The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature: being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endowed him with the faculty of freewill. But every man, when he enters into society, gives up a part of his natural liberty, as the price of so valuable a purchase; and, in consideration of receiving the advantages of mutual commerce, obliges himself to conform to those laws, which the community has thought proper to establish.
  • Of great importance to the public is the preservation of this personal liberty; for if once it were left in the power of any the highest magistrate to imprison arbitrarily whomever he or his officers thought proper, (as in France it is daily practised by the crown,) there would soon be an end of all other rights and immunities. Some have thought that unjust attacks, even upon life or property, at the arbitrary will of the magistrate, are less dangerous to the commonwealth than such as are made upon the personal liberty of the subject. To bereave a man of life, or by violence to confiscate his estate, without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism, as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole kingdom; but confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore a more dangerous engine of arbitrary government.
  • So great moreover is the regard of the law for private property, that it will not authorize the least violation of it; no, not even for the general good of the whole community. If a new road, for instance, were to be made through the grounds of a private person, it might perhaps be extensively beneficial to the public; but the law permits no man, or set of men, to do this without consent of the owner of the land. In vain may it be urged, that the good of the individual ought to yield to that of the community; for it would be dangerous to allow any private man, or even any public tribunal, to be the judge of this common good, and to decide whether it be expedient or no. Besides, the public good is in nothing more essentially interested, than in the protection of every individual's private rights, as modelled by the municipal law. In this, and similar cases the legislature alone can, and indeed frequently does, interpose, and compel the individual to acquiesce. But how does it interpose and compel? Not by absolutely stripping the subject of his property in an arbitrary manner; but by giving him a full indemnification and equivalent for the injury thereby sustained.
  • What they do, no authority upon earth can undo.
  • In this distinct and separate existence of the judicial power, in a peculiar body of men, nominated indeed, but not removable at pleasure, by the crown, consists one main preservative of the public liberty; which cannot subsist long in any state, unless the administration of common justice be in some degree separated both from the legislative and the also from the executive power. Were it joined with the legislative, the life, liberty, and property of the subject would be in the hands of arbitrary judges, whose decisions would be then regulated only by their own opinions, and not by any fundamental principles of law; which, though legislators may depart from, yet judges are bound to observe. Were it joined with the executive, this union might soon be an overbalance for the legislative. For which reason... effectual care is taken to remove all judicial power out of the hands of the king's privy council; who, as then was evident from recent instances might soon be inclined to pronounce that for law, which was most agreeable to the prince or his officers. Nothing therefore is to be more avoided, in a free constitution, than uniting the provinces of a judge and a minister of state.
  • The royal navy of England hath ever been its greatest defense and ornament; it is its ancient and natural strength; the floating bulwark of our island.
  • Time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.
  • There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; 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.
  • That the king can do no wrong, is a necessary and fundamental principle of the English constitution.
  • All the several pleas and excuses, which protect the committer of a forbidden act from the punishment which is otherwise annexed thereto, may be reduced to this single consideration, the want or defect of will. An involuntary act, as it has no claim to merit, so neither can it induce any guilt: the concurrence of the will, when it has its choice either to do or to avoid the fact in question, being the only thing that renders human actions either praiseworthy or culpable. Indeed, to make a complete crime, cognizable by human laws, there must be both a will and an act.
  • Of crimes injurious to the persons of private subjects, the most principal and important is the offense of taking away that life, which is the immediate gift of the great creator; and which therefore no man can be entitled to deprive himself or another of, but in some manner either expressly commanded in, or evidently deducible from, those laws which the creator has given us; the divine laws, I mean, of either nature or revelation.
  • The founders of the English laws have with excellent forecast contrived, that no man should be called to answer to the king for any capital crime, unless upon the preparatory accusation of twelve or more of his fellow subjects, the grand jury: and that the truth of every accusation, whether preferred in the shape of indictment, information, or appeal, should afterwards be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbours, indifferently chosen, and superior to all suspicion. So that the liberties of England cannot but subsist, so long as this palladium remains sacred and inviolate, not only from all open attacks, (which none will be so hardy as to make) but also from all secret machinations, which may sap and undermine it; by introducing new and arbitrary methods of trial, by justices of the peace, commissioners of the revenue, and courts of conscience. And however convenient these may appear at first, (as doubtless all arbitrary powers, well executed, are the most convenient) yet let it be again remembered, that delays, and little inconveniences in the forms of justice, are the price that all free nations must pay for their liberty in more substantial matters; that these inroads upon this sacred bulwark of the nation are fundamentally opposite to the spirit of our constitution; and that, though begun in trifles, the precedent may gradually increase and spread, to the utter disuse of juries in questions of the most momentous concern.
  • It is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.
    • Book IV, ch. 27.

Quotes about William Blackstone

  • In the history of American institutions, no other book — except the Bible — has played so great a role as Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. Before the American Revolution, according to Edmund Burke, it had sold nearly as many copies in the colonies as in England. Even without Blackstone, the Americans surely would have fought their Revolution and doubtless would have preserved English institutions in America. But the convenient appearance of the Commentaries within the decade before the Declaration of Independence made it much easier for Americans to see what they were preserving; and made it feasible to perpetuate those institutions in remote villages without trained lawyers or law libraries. From Blackstone we can learn even more about what the American colonists were defending than by reading the violent tracts of Thomas Paine.
    • Daniel J. Boorstin, 'Preface to the Beacon Press Edition', The Mysterious Science of the Law: An Essay on Blackstone's Commentaries Showing How Blackstone, Employing Eighteenth-Century Ideas of Science, Religion, History, Aesthetics, and Philosophy, Made of the Law at Once a Conservative and a Mysterious Science (1941; 1958), p. i
  • I say...upon this point, what JUDGE BLACKSTONE says; and that is, that the right to resist oppression always exists, but that those who compose the nation at any given time must be left to judge for themselves when oppression has arrived at a pitch to justify the exercise of such right.
    • William Cobbett, ‘To the Freemen of Coventry’, Political Register (4 April 1818), p. 404
  • He was the greatest exponent of the common law that we have ever had... To this we owe his immortal Commentaries on the Laws of England. In four books. They were the product of his lectures over a period of twelve years. The work was at once acclaimed as a classic by lawyers and by men of letters. It has remained a classic ever since. I have an early edition in my library. I refer to it constantly when I want to know what the law was in his day. I am always amazed at the breadth of his knowledge, the research which he did, the style of his prose, and his statement of principles. It is the greatest law-book that we have ever had.
  • As a judge he showed himself most workmanlike, and it would be hard to find any decision in which he failed to attain a high standard. He was certainly outstanding among his colleagues, who, though sound lawyers, did not rise above mediocrity, and were at any rate overshadowed by their contemporaries in the Court of King's Bench.
    • Harold Hanbury, 'Blackstone as a Judge', The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 3, No. 1 (January 1959), p. 26
  • It can be said with confidence that he showed a very firm grasp of every branch of law which he was called upon to handle. No problem found him wanting in anxious consideration and sensible conclusion. If there were few diamonds in his judicial necklace, at least there were no gewgaws.
    • Harold Hanbury, 'Blackstone as a Judge', The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 3, No. 1 (January 1959), p. 27
  • We are no admirers of the political doctrines laid down in Blackstone's Commentaries. But if we consider that those Commentaries were read with great applause in the very schools where, seventy or eighty years before, books had been publicly burned by order of the University of Oxford for containing the damnable doctrine that the English monarchy is limited and mixed, we cannot deny that a salutary change had taken place.
    • Thomas Babington Macaulay, 'Sir James Mackintosh', The Edinburgh Review (July 1835), quoted in T. B. Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays Contributed to The Edinburgh Review, Vol. II (1843), p. 278
  • My good lord, till of late I could never, with any satisfaction to myself, answer that question; but, since the publication of Mr. Blackstone's Commentaries I can never be at a loss. There your son will find analytical reasoning diffused in a pleasing and perspicuous style. There he may imbibe imperceptibly the first principles on which our excellent laws are founded, and THERE he may become acquainted with an uncouth crabbed author, Coke upon Littleton, who has disappointed and disheartened many a Tyro, but who cannot fail to please in a modern dress.
    • Lord Mansfield, reply to a peer who asked him what books he would advise his son to read, who was determined to be a lawyer, quoted in John Holliday, The Life of William Late Earl of Mansfield (1797), pp. 89-90
  • Blackstone's declaration respecting the civil death of married women haunted many other outstanding leaders in the woman movement of the middle period. Although Matilda Joslyn Gage tried to meet it by a curious display of logic, she regarded it as a statement of the law. "After marriage," she declared in 1852, "the husband and wife are considered as one person in law, which I hold to be false from the very laws applicable to married parties. Were it so, the act of one would be as binding as the act of the other;...were it so, a woman could not legally be a man's inferior. Such a thing would be a veritable impossibility. One-half of a person cannot be made the protection or direction of the other half. Blackstone says 'a woman may indeed be attorney for her husband, for that implies no separation from, but rather a representation of, her lord. And a husband may also bequeath anything to his wife by will; for it cannot take effect till the coverture is determined by his death." After stating at considerable length the reasons showing their unity, the learned commentator proceeds to cut the knot, and show they are not one, but are considered as two persons, one superior, the one inferior, and not only so, but the inferior in the eye of the law as acting from compulsion"...At the Woman's Rights Convention held in Syracuse the following year, 1853, Mrs. Gage recurred to the subject and spoke as if equity and legislation had made no changes in the "disabilities" of married women at common law. She affirmed that "the legal disabilities of women" are numerous; that they are only known to those who bear them; that they "are acknowledged by Kent, Story, and many other legal authorities." Without directing attention to those pages of Kent and Story which set forth at length the equitable principles by which common-law rules could be and often were nullified, Mrs. Gage went on with her oration: "A wife has no management in the joint earnings of herself and her husband; they are entirely under control of the husband, who is obliged to furnish the wife merely the common necessaries of life; all that she receives beyond these is looked upon by the law as a favor, and not held as her right. A mother is denied the custody of her own child; a most barbarous and unjust law, which robs her of the child placed in her care by the great Creator himself. A widow is allowed the use merely of one-third of the real estate left at the husband's death; and when her minor children have grown up she must surrender the personal property, even to the family Bible, and the pictures of her dear children. In view of such laws the women engaged in this movement ask that the wife shall be made heir to the husband to the same extent that he is now her heir...."The present law of divorce is very unjust; the husband, whether the innocent or the guilty party, retaining all the wife's property, has also the control of the children unless by special decree of the court they are assigned to the mother." For the gentle Quaker, Lucretia Mott, one of the most persuasive American women of her time, Blackstone was no less an unquestioned authority than he was for Mrs. Stanton and Mrs. Gage. After hearing Richard H. Dana deliver a lecture in 1849 ridiculing "the new demand of American womanhood for civil and political rights," Mrs. Mott also delivered a lecture, in reply to the Boston orator.
  • The fact still remains, that Blackstone first rescued the law of England from chaos. He did, and did exceedingly well, for the end of the eighteenth century, what Coke tried to do, and did exceedingly ill, about 150 years before; that is to say, he gave an account of the law as a whole, capable of being studied, not only without disgust, but with interest and profit. If we except the Commentaries of Chancellor Kent, which were suggested by Blackstone, I should doubt whether any work intended to describe the whole of the law of any country possessed anything like the same merits. His arrangement of the subject is, I think, defective, for reasons which have often been given, but a better work of the kind has not yet been written, and, with all its defects, the literary skill with which a problem of extraordinary difficulty has been dealt with is astonishing.
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