The Commentaries on the Laws of England
by Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780)
The Commentaries, published barely a decade before the American Revolution, are seen by historians as providing a convenient text to which the courts of the young republic cited, thereby giving scholarly authority to the judicial decisions that shaped American jurisprudence. Published in four volumes, Blackstone’s Commentaries are the published transcripts of a series of lectures given by Blackstone at Oxford starting in 1753. His lectures were the first academic offerings at a university of the English common law. Prior to Blackstone academic law courses were restricted to Roman civil law and canon or ecclesiastical law. The Commentaries are divided into four volumes, on the rights of persons, things, of private wrongs and public wrongs.
While Blackstone’s original audience was the cultivated university trained gentlemen of English society, his work paradoxically proved to be a democratizing instrument. In England, prior to Blackstone, access to knowledge of the law was restricted, from ancient times, to the legal societies known as the "Inns of Court." The publication and relatively widespread distribution of the Commentaries allowed any educated layperson to read the law and in some instances formed the basis of legal education that led to a career in the law. In the fifty years following the American Revolution, the Commentaries sold more copies in America than in England and the treatise was to be found in countless small towns and county courts. The work was the tool of self-education that established the Anglo-American legal tradition and was read by self taught country lawyers like Abraham Lincoln.
Read Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England