William Blackstone - Legacy

Legacy

Blackstone's primary legacy is his written work, specifically the Commentaries on the Laws of England. Demand for reprinted, abridged and translated versions was "almost inexhaustible" in the 18th and 19th centuries, although the Commentaries' emphasis on the sovereignty of Parliament drew ire. Alexis de Tocqueville described Blackstone as "an inferior writer, without liberality of mind or depth of judgment". Other commentators differ; one described him as "the core element in the British Enlightenment", comparing him to Montesquieu, Beccaria and Voltaire. Academics have said that the Commentaries were crucial in changing English Law from a system based on actions to a system of substantive law. At the time of publication, the common law of England was still, in some ways, in its infancy, with people uncertain as to what the law was. The Commentaries helped to solidify legal thinking. At the same time, legal education had stalled, and Blackstone's work gave the Law "at least a veneer of scholarly respectability". William Searle Holdsworth, one of Blackstone's successors as Vinerian Professor, argued that "if the Commentaries had not been written when they were written, I think it very doubtful that, and other English speaking countries would have so universally adopted the law".

The Commentaries had a particular influence in the United States; James Iredell, an original Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States wrote that the Commentaries were "Books admirably calculated for a young Student, and indeed may instruct the most learned . . Pleasure and Instruction go hand in hand". When the Commentaries were first printed in North America, 1,400 copies were ordered for Philadelphia alone. Academics have also noted the early reliance of the Supreme Court on the Commentaries, probably due to a lack of US legal tradition at that time. Robert Ferguson notes that "all our formative documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the seminal decisions of the Supreme Court under John Marshall — were drafted by attorneys steeped in Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. So much was this the case that the Commentaries rank second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions". Even today, the Commentaries are cited in Supreme Court decisions between 10 and 12 times a year.

Within United States academia and practise, as well as within the judiciary, the Commentaries had a substantial impact; with the scarcity of law books on the frontier, they were "both the only law school and the only law library most American lawyers used to practise law in America for nearly a century after they were published". Blackstone had drawn up a plan for a dedicated School of Law, and submitted it to the University of Oxford; when the idea was rejected he included it in the Commentaries. It is from this plan that the modern system of American law schools comes. Subscribers to the first edition of Blackstone, and later readers who were profoundly influenced by it, include James Iredell, John Marshall, James Wilson, John Jay, John Adams, James Kent and Abraham Lincoln.

In the early 1920s the American Bar Association presented a statue of Blackstone to the English Bar Association, however, at the time, the sculpture was too tall to be placed in the Royal Courts of Justice. The sculpture, designed by Paul Wayland Bartlett was eventually cast in Europe and presented back to the United States for display. Congress approved the placement of the sculpture in Washington, D.C. on 15 March 1943, and appropriated $10,000 for the installation. The bronze statue is a nine-foot (2.7 m) standing portrait of Blackstone wearing judicial robes and a long curly wig, holding a copy of Commentaries. It is placed on a tall granite base and stands on Constitution Avenue & 3rd Street NW.

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