A series of lectures delivered by the English jurist SIR WILLIAM BLACKSTONE at Oxford in 1753 and published as Commentaries on the Laws of England in four volumes between 1765 and 1769, which systematized and clarified the amorphous body of ENGLISH LAW.
The Commentaries are the first attempt to state the entire corpus of the COMMON LAW. They were acclaimed internationally and their precepts were applied to the study and PRACTICE OF LAW in England and the United States. They exerted a tremendous influence on the American bar, both because of their intrinsic value and because they were the only treatises readily available during that period of U.S. history. The Commentaries were the primary reference tools for lawyers and judges until the nineteenth century because the appellate courts in America did not regularly submit their opinions for publication in bound volumes. Although there were court reporters, their records of decisions were incomplete and sporadic; and few attorneys could afford a comprehensive library.
Since the common law of England was incorporated into the legal systems of the colonies, Blackstone's summaries rendered the legal system accessible to the entire educated class of the colonies. Dissatisfaction with the common-law restrictions on FREEDOM OF SPEECH and the press was an important aspect of the burgeoning resentment of English rule; and the knowledge and intellectual stimulation provided by Blackstone thereby played a role in causing the American Revolution. Blackstone's books, which were periodically updated by American editors, constituted a major source of law for approximately fifty years after the American Revolution.
The Commentaries are viewed as the most comprehensive summary of the entire body of English law ever compiled by a single author. Their clarity, sophistication, and formality have caused them to be highly regarded. While studying to be a lawyer, ABRAHAM LINCOLN reportedly read Blackstone by candlelight.
Blackstone did have detractors, however, most notably THOMAS JEFFERSON and JEREMY BENTHAM, the English Utilitarian philosopher. Jefferson believed that Blackstone and his followers were "Tories" and that he was a negative influence on America in the sense that more attention needed to be devoted to "whiggism" or "republicanism." Bentham criticized Blackstone for his perception that English law needed no improvement and for his imprecise analysis of the historical and social factors underlying systems of justice.
Although the Commentaries might seem antiquated by current standards, Blackstone's work represented a tremendous advance in the study of law and played a significant role in the development of the American legal system.