In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Blackstone

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Selected Editions and Adaptations of Blackstone’s Works
  • Biographies
  • Collections
  • Jeremy Bentham versus William Blackstone
  • Purpose and Structure of the Commentaries
  • Constitutions, Natural Law, Individual Rights, and Custom
  • Marriage and Coverture
  • Impact on English and Australian Law
  • Impact on Continental European Law
  • Legal Literature and Legal Education

Atlantic History William Blackstone
Ellen Holmes Pearson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0406


Accomplished legal scholar and jurist William Blackstone (b. 1723–d. 1780) is known for his remarkable work, the Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769). Born in London, Blackstone won a scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford, and subsequently studied the common law in London before being called to the bar at Middle Temple in 1746. In 1758, he was elected as the first Vinerian Chair in English Law at Oxford, a position he held until 1766. As Vinerian Professor, Blackstone delivered the first lectures on English common law in any university in the world. In 1765 he published the first volume of his Oxford lectures, eventually producing four volumes of the Commentaries. During his career, Blackstone published many other works, and a collection of his nominate reports was published shortly after his death. The Commentaries, however, were his crowning achievement. This seminal work synthesized the writings of generations of judges, legal treatise writers, Parliamentary legislation, and political theories, making England’s common law accessible to students of the law. After an introduction that addressed the study of law and the nature of laws in general as well as in England and its subject countries, the volumes explored the rights of persons; the rights of things; private wrongs, meaning offenses against individuals; and public wrongs, or criminal law. The Commentaries ran through eight English editions in his lifetime, and in America, it sold more than one thousand copies before an edition was printed in America in 1771–1772. In the absence of American legal treatises and home-grown precedent, late-18th and early-19th-century law students and practitioners turned to the Commentaries as a central reference on the common law. Contemporary critics, most notably Jeremy Bentham, described Blackstone’s work as a chaotic and superficial attempt to preserve the common law, which he considered to be a confusing and outdated legal system. His supporters praised his ability to distill the complicated layers of English law into four volumes that constituted a systematic description of common law. In 1770 he was appointed a judge in the Court of Common Pleas, where he served until his death in 1780, at the age of fifty-six. Blackstone’s ideas about Anglo-American common law are still relevant today, as can be seen through the continued interest of scholars and law practitioners into the 21st century.

Reference Works

Laeuchli 2015 is an impressive bibliography of works by and about Blackstone, in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Commentaries’ publication. Laeuchli’s work superceded Eller 1938, which still constitutes an excellent reference for editions, abridgements, and adaptations of Blackstone’s Commentaries and his other published works located in the Yale Law School collection. Cohen 2009 and Cosgrove 1996 are curated selected listings of Blackstone’s works, as well as critiques and analyses of the Commentaries. Hoeflich 2009 and Johnson 1978 address the editions of Blackstone located in early national American legal scholars’ and practitioners’ libraries. For those interested in portrayals of Blackstone in material culture, Baker and Prest 2009 focuses on the iconography depicting the jurist.

  • Baker, John H., and Wilfred Prest. “Iconography.” In Blackstone and His Commentaries: Biography, Law, History. Edited by Wilfred Prest, 229–242. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    The authors list and describe portraits, engravings, statues and stained glass depictions of Blackstone. Appendix offers eight full-color images of likenesses.

  • Cohen, Morris. “Bibliography.” In Blackstone and His Commentaries: Biography, Law, History. Edited by Wilfrid Prest, 217–228. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Summarizes selected works by Blackstone, including editions of the Commentaries as well as pamphlets, tracts, briefs, poems, and other publications.

  • Cosgrove, Richard A. Scholars of the Law: English Jurisprudence from Blackstone to Hart. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

    Biographical chapter discusses Blackstone’s impact on English law and provides a useful historiography of analyses of the Commentaries from contemporary to late-20th-century scholarship.

  • Eller, Catherine Spicer. William Blackstone Collection in the Yale Law Library: A Bibliographical Catalogue. 1938.

    Comprehensive listing of all editions of the Commentaries located in the Yale University Law Library collection, including English, Irish, Continental European, and American editions, abridgments, and works founded on the Commentaries. Also includes a list of Blackstone’s minor works, as well as related secondary sources held in Yale’s library. Originally published by Yale University Press in 1938.

  • Hoeflich, Michael. “American Blackstones.” In Blackstone and His Commentaries: Biography, Law, History. Edited by Wilfrid Prest, 171–184. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Compilation of American versions of Blackstone, beginning with St. George Tucker’s edition (1803) through the late 19th century.

  • Johnson, Herbert A. Imported Eighteenth-Century Law Treatises in American Libraries, 1700–1799. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 1978.

    Demonstrates the prevalence of Blackstone’s Commentaries in early American legal scholars’ libraries by compiling this catalog of imported law texts found in the libraries of twenty-two 18th-century American law practitioners and judges.

  • Laeuchli, Ann Jordan. Bibliographical Catalog of William Blackstone. Edited by James E. Mooney. Buffalo, NY: William S. Hein, for Yale Law Library, 2015.

    Revision of Catherine Spicer Eller’s 1938 catalog of Yale’s William Blackstone Collection. In addition to works held in Yale’s collection, the catalog includes works by and about Blackstone held in other libraries internationally.

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