All our formative documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the seminal decisions of the Supreme Court under John Marshall – were drafted by attorneys steeped in Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. So much was this the case that the Commentaries rank second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions. — Robert Ferguson
William Blackstone was born into an English middle class family in 1723. Through the generous nomination of a family friend, Charles Wither, he attended and excelled at Charterhouse School, where he won awards for his Latin verses on John Milton, became a favorite student, and received a scholarship to attend Pembroke College at Oxford. There he studied for a Bachelor of Civil Law degree and even wrote and published a few collections of poems, a famous one The Lawyer’s Farewell to His Muse, during his time studying. After Blackstone received his call to the Bar, he first began his career by simplifying and refining the university administration through his position as treasurer, but then surprisingly went on to deliver a series of extraordinarily popular lectures on English Common Law, a topic that had never before been covered in history. These lectures would later lead to his acclaimed publication, An Analysis of the Laws of England in 1756. Upon the death of Charles Viner in 1758, the Vinerian Professor of English Law position was created and Blackstone became the first to hold the title. One of his most notable students was the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
Blackstone’s magnum opus is his Commentaries on the Laws of England, and indeed, this work is still cited by Supreme Court opinions upwards of 10 times annually. He organized this massive undertaking into four books: “The Rights of Persons,” “The Rights of Things,” “Private Wrongs,” and “Public Wrongs.” This thorough and methodical analysis of one of the driest and unapproachable subjects of his time (of our time too?) was founded on his understanding that God endowed “the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws” and that they are “laws of human nature, whereby freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained.” Many scholars and historians have agreed that if the Commentaries had been left unwritten, common law would not have had the key influence on the English-speaking societies that it has today.
One of his most famous quotes is now known as Blackstone’s Ratio:
It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.
This became a maxim of English law, was utilized by multiple American Founding Fathers, and is strongly emphasized in American law schools today.
His literary fame propelled him into positions of public service, first as the Tory Member of Parliament for Hindon, and then a Justice of the Court of King’s Bench on 16 February 1770. Though his personality did not acclimate well with political office, as he is recorded to have only spoken 14 times on the floor of the Parliament in all of 7 years, it supplied him the stability and wealth to complete his writings. He held the position of judge, performing moderately well, until his death in 1780. A life-size statue of him now presides over the Codrington Library of All Souls College.
The Gryphon Editions consultation has placed William Blackstone on our list of the 100 Most Influential People because of his unparalleled contributions to the study of law, which continues to be a crucial feature in the success of England and America today. He emerged into history from a modest background, and in turn, made clear procedural justice a reality for modest men. The story of this great man will be immortalized once again in our leather-bound biography, part of our 100 Most Influential People Library.