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equally happy in his efforts to terminate the disputes which had previously existed with regard to this donation.
In the year 1754 he was engaged as counsel in the county election, where a question, arising on the right of certain copyholders to vote, was the origin of his tract published a few years afterwards under the title of
Considerations on Copyholders.”
In the year 1756, Mr. Viner, the laborious compiler of the most complete abridgment of the English law that has ever appeared, died, and bequeathed to the university of Oxford the whole profits of his voluminous compilation, for the purpose of promoting the study of the common law of England. This munificent benefaction was employed in the first instance in the institution of a professorship of English law, to which a stipend of two hundred pounds per annum was annexed. The duty assigned to the professor was to deliver one solemn public lecture on the laws of England in every academical term, and also by himself or his deputy to read yearly a complete course of lectures on the same subject, consisting of sixty lectures at the least. On the 20th of October, 1758, Mr. Blackstone was unanimously elected the first Vinerian professor; and on the 25th of the same month he read his introductory lecture, the method, elegance, and learning of which attracted the admiration of every one who heard it. This excellent discourse was afterward prefixed to the first volume of the Commentaries.
The reputation which the first course of the Vinerian lectures obtained was such, that the nobleman, who superintended the education of the young Prince, requested Mr. Blackstone to read them to his royal highness; an honour which was respectfully declined by the new professor in consequence of the pressure of his engagements at the university. Copies of the lectures were, however, presented to the Prince, a service for which Mr. Blackstone received a munificent acknowledgment.
The distinction which Mr. Blackstone had acquired by his lectures induced him in the year 1759 to return
to London, where he resumed his practice, visiting Ox. ford at stated periods only, for the delivery of his lectures. The coif was pressed upon him by Lord Chief Justice Willes and Mr. Justice Bathurst; but he thought proper to decline the honour. In the same year he gave to the world a magnificent edition of Magna Charta and the Charter of the Forest, which issued from the Clarendon press.
About this time he also published a small tract on the law of descents in fee simple.
Hitherto Mr. Blackstone appears to have taken no part whatever in the political discussions of the day; but a dissolution of parliament having taken place, he was returned in 1761 as one of the representatives of Hindon, in Wiltshire. Soon afterwards he received a patent of precedence, having declined the office of chief justice of the common pleas in Ireland.
The rank thus conferred upon him, and the celebrity which he had acquired as a writer, operated very favourably on the professional views of Mr. Blackstone. His practice having considerably increased, he married Sarah, the eldest surviving daughter of James Clitherow, of Boston House, in the county of Middlesex, by whom he had a family of nine children. His fellowship having been vacated by his marriage, he was, in July, 1761, appointed principal of New Inn Hall by the Earl of Westmoreland, at that time chancellor of the university.
In the year 1762 he collected his tracts on legal subjects, and published them in two volumes 8vo.; and in the course of the following year, on the establishment of the queen's household, he received the appointment of solicitor-general to her majesty, and was elected a bencher of the Middle Temple.
In the year 1765 appeared the first volume of the celebrated Commentaries on the Laws of England. The history of a work which has become so universal a textbook, and which has almost rendered the abstruse science to which it is devoted a popular study, cannot be devoid of interest. The period at which Mr. Blackstone first contemplated the composition of the Commentaries does
not appear ; but he was obviously led to the subject by the preparation of the private lectures which he delivered in the university of Oxford. In the earlier part of his professional life, the chair of civil law at Oxford having become vacant, the Duke of Newcastle consulted Mr. Murray the solicitor-general (afterwards Lord Mansfield) on the selection of a proper person to fill the vacancy. The solicitor-general warmly recommended Mr. Black stone, who was accordingly introduced to the duke. Being desirous of ascertaining the principles of the candidate, his grace observed, that, in case of any political agitation in the university, he might, he presumed, rely upon Mr. Blackstone's exertions in behalf of government. « Your grace may be assured that I will discharge my duty in giving law-lectures to the best of my poor ability,” was the reply. “ And your duty in the other branch, too?" added his grace. Mr. Blackstone merely bowed in answer, and a few days afterwards Dr. Jenner was appointed to the vacant chair. * He did not, how ever, abandon the idea of lecturing on the English law at Oxford ; and in the year 1753 he gave the course of private lectures, of which the Analysis of the Law of England, published three years afterwards, presents the order and principal divisions. In the arrangement of those lectures, and in the composition of his Analysis, Mr. Blackstone principally followed the system adopted by Sir Matthew Hale in his Analysis of the Law; a work to which he has, in the preface to his own volume, acknowledged his obligations. When, upon being elected the first Vinerian professor, it became necessary for Mr. Blackstone to adopt a scheme for the lectures which it would be his duty to deliver, he retained the arrangement of his former lectures, as given in the Analysis, which he regarded as an outline to be filled up and finished. To the composition of these lectures, therefore, we are indebted for the admirable « Commentaries on the Laws of England," which, notwithstanding some objections which may justly be urged against them, will remain
* Holliday's Life of Mansfield, p. 89.
a lasting monument of the genius, learning, and taste of the author.
The reception which the Commentaries met with was most flattering. Until this period the volumes usually placed in the hands of the student, at the commencement of his labours, had been Finch's Law or Wood's Institutes; works ill qualified to reconcile him to his profession. These were now gladly abandoned for a manual, in which accurate learning, systematic arrangement, and comprehensive research were accompanied by an elegance of style to which hitherto the compositions of our English jurists had been strangers. Lord Mansfield, with whom the elder writers of our law appear never to have been favourites, expressed in strong terms his admiration of the manner in which Mr. Blackstone had executed his task. Having been requested to point out the books proper for the perusal of a student, he is said to have replied, “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.” *
In preparing his Commentaries for the press Mr. Blackstone anxiously sought to render them as free from errors as possible. They were submitted both to Lord Mansfield and Chief Justice Wilmot +; but in what degree the work benefited by this revision we are ignorant.
However great was the admiration with which the Commentaries were received, they did not escape the severity of criticism. “ Notwithstanding the diffidence,” says the author, expressed in the foregoing preface, no sooner was the work completed than many * Holliday's Life of Mansfield, p. 89. + Life of Wilmot, p. 202.
of its positions were vehemently attacked by zealots of all (even opposite) denominations, religious as well as civil ; by some with a greater, by others with a less degree of acrimony.” Amongst the censors was one, whose singularly acute and inquiring mind has been devoted with extraordinary constancy, for more than half a century, to the discussion of some of the most important subjects that can affect human happiness. In the year 1776, Mr. Jeremy Bentham published his “ Fragment on Government, or a Comment on the Commentaries, being an Examination of what is delivered on the Subject of Government in general, in the Introduction to Sir W. Blackstone's Commentaries, with a Preface in which is given a Critique on the Work at large.” Granting, as it seems impossible not to do, the justice of many of Mr. Bentham's strictures on the Commentaries, and especially on “ the antipathy to reformation,” or, perhaps, more accurately speaking, the desire which pervades the work to support the system of English law, upon grounds and reasons insufficient in themselves, it must yet be remembered that Mr. Blackstone did not profess, in the language of Mr. Bentham, to be a censor, but merely an expositor of the law, and that his Commentaries cannot fairly be treated as philosophical disquisitions. Mr. Bentham has, indeed, himself pronounced a merited eulogium upon the excellent method and style of the Commentaries, in language which the commentator himself could not have surpassed.
- Let us reverse the tablet. While with this freedom I expose our author's ill deserts, let me not be backward in acknowledging and paying homage to his various merits; a justice due not to him alone, but to that public, which now for so many years has been dealing out to him (it cannot be supposed altogether without title) so large a measure of its applause.
“ Correct, elegant, unembarrassed, ornamented; the style is such as could scarce fail to recommend a work still more vicious in point of matter to the multitude of readers.