Blackstone’s Oxford.

As we are coming ever closer to our 35th Course during which the Common and Civil Law traditions will be contrasted, the episodes below taken from the life of Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) illustrate the evolution of those traditions.

Like many bright and ambitious Law students, William Blackstone sought fame, fortune and respect as a Barrister.  As we know, academic success does not invariably beget practical legal skills. Furthermore, Blackstone, notwithstanding his academic successes, lacked the social connections and, even more importantly, the ability to think and argue on his feet to make it as a Barrister. Thus, those can’t do …teach and so it goes.

Early in his return to Oxford, Blackstone sought to distinguish himself in this most Herculean of tasks, the development of libraries.  Driven by his keen interest in architecture, he pushed through the completion of the beautiful Codrington Library, now the All Souls College Library, (and even got the Duke of Wharton to help with the financing); he then helped develop the Library’s catalogue. Alas, he was far less successful in his scheme to get the individual colleges to transfer their books and manuscripts to the recently completed Radcliffe Camera (completed in 1748) which Blackstone hoped would become a “Library of a new Species”.

As a Law teacher at Oxford, Blackstone set on a groundbreaking path; he decided to teach Common Law at the University. Until that time, only Civil and Canon Law were deemed worthy of attention at Oxford.  The fruit of his lectures ultimately became his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-9), a complete exposition of the Common Law.  This seminal work was edited many times, including a literate lampoon of the Law titled The Comic Blackstone.

Blackstone was the inaugural holder of the newly endowed Vinerian Professor of English Law. Having been passed over for the Regius Chair of Civil Law in 1753, Blackstone actively campaigned to get the Vinerian Chair and became its first holder in 1758.  This professorship was funded by Charles Viner (1678-1756), who made a large fortune from the sale of the first commercially viable Abridgment of English Common Law: the inelegantly titled General abridgement of law and equity: alphaetically digested under proper titles, with notes and references to the whole.  Viner, as the title of his work states, went for alphabetical ordering of Legal themes. Blackstone, on the other hand, deployed a taxonomy that mirrored the logical structure of the law.

However, IP was a concern for both Viner and Blackstone.  Blackstone finally decided to publish his course notes as the Commentaries as it was rumored that a counterfeit edition would be published in Dublin and that inaccurate student notes on his courses were being peddled. Viner also feared counterfeiters.  To frustrate them, he sold the work from his own office and had the volumes of his Abridgement printed on specially watermarked paper (with his own monogram): A cutting-edge form of rights management in 18th century Hanoverian England.


Daniel Boyer