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Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, Ch. 1





[Blackstone begins his treatise justifying the study of common law, which includes a defense of the common law as a whole against the civil and ecclesiastical law prominent on the Continent. The common law was thought as a backwater anachronism whose European counterparts had long been replaced by the formalistic and rational Justinian Code. The great jurist's job is therefore to convince his countrymen of the utility of learning the law, but also defending English law in particular as a corpus against its deriders on the Continent.]


The science thus committed to his charge, to be cultivated, methodized, and explained in a course of academical lectures, is that of the laws and constitution of our own country: a species of knowledge, in which the gentlemen of England have been more remarkably deficient than those of all Europe besides. In most of the nations on the continent, where the civil or imperial law under different modifications is closely interwoven with the municipal laws of the land, no gentleman, or at least no scholar, thinks his education is completed, till he has attended a course or two of lectures, both upon the institutes of Justinian and the local constitutions of his native soil, under the very eminent professors that abound in their several universities. And in the northern parts of our own island, where also the municipal laws are frequently connected with the civil, it is difficult to meet with a person of liberal education, who is destitute of a competent knowledge in that science, which is to be the guardian of his natural rights and the rule of his civil conduct.


Nor have the imperial laws been totally neglected even in the English nation. A general acquaintance with their decisions has ever been deservedly considered as no small accomplishment of a gentleman; and a fashion has prevailed, especially of late, to transport the growing hopes of this island to foreign universities, in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; which, though infinitely inferior to our own in every other consideration, have been looked upon as better nurseries of the civil, or (which is nearly the same) of their own municipal law. In the meantime it has been the peculiar lot of our admirable system of laws, to be neglected, and even unknown, by all but one practical profession, though built upon the soundest foundations, and approved by the experience of ages.


Far be it from me to derogate from the study of the civil law, considered (apart from any binding authority) as a collection of written reason. No man is more thoroughly persuaded of the general excellence of its rules, and the usual equity of its decisions, nor is better convinced of its use as well as ornament to the scholar, the divine, the statesman, and even the common lawyer. But we must not carry our veneration so far as to sacrifice our Alfred and Edward to the manes of Theodosius and Justinian; we must not prefer the edict of the praetor, or the rescript of the Roman emperor, to our own immemorial customs or the sanctions of an English parliament; unless we can also prefer the despotic monarchy of Rome and Byzantium, for whose meridians the former were calculated, to the free constitution of Britain, which the latter are adapted to perpetuate.


Without detracting therefore from the real merit which abounds in the imperial law, I hope I may have leave to assert, that if an Englishman must be ignorant of either the one or the other, he had better be a stranger to the Roman than the English institutions. For I think it an undeniable position, that a competent knowledge of the laws of that society in which we live, is the proper accomplishment of every gentleman and scholar; an highly useful, I had almost said essential, part of liberal and polite education. And in this I am warranted by the example of ancient Rome; where, as Cicero inform us, the very boys were obliged to learn the twelve tables by heart as a carmen necessarium, or indispensable lesson, to imprint on their tender minds an early knowledge of the laws and constitution of their country.


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And, first, to demonstrate the utility of some acquaintance with the laws of the land, let us only reflect a moment on the singular frame and polity of that land, which is governed by this system of laws. A land, perhaps the only one in the universe, in which political or civil liberty is the very end and scope of the constitution. This liberty, rightly understood consists in the power of doing whatever the laws permit; which is only to be effected by a general conformity of all orders and degrees to those equitable rules of action, by which the meanest individual is protected from the insults and oppression of the greatest. As therefore every subject is interested in the preservation of the laws, it is incumbent upon every man to be acquainted with those at least with which he is immediately concerned; lest he incur the censure, as well as inconvenience, of living in society without knowing the obligations which it lays him under. And thus much may suffice for persons of inferior condition, who have neither time nor capacity to enlarge their views beyond that contracted sphere in which they are appointed to move. But those on whom nature and fortune have bestowed more abilities and greater leisure, cannot be so easily excused. These advantages are given them, not for the benefit of themselves only, but also of the public; and yet they cannot, in any scene of life, discharge properly their duty either to the public or themselves, without some degree of knowledge in the laws. To evince this the more clearly, it may not be amiss to descend to a few particulars.


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[Blackstone proceeds to provide practical justification for the study of the law: For men of means, the laws of inheritance are of great value, as well as ambitious men desirous of serving the nation in Parliament.]


Again, the policy of all laws has made some forms necessary in the wording of last wills and testaments, and more with regard to their attestation. An ignorance in these must always be of dangerous consequence, to such as by choice or necessity compile their own testaments without any technical assistance. Those who have attended the courts of justice are the best witnesses of the confusion and distresses that are hereby occasioned in families; and of the difficulties that arise in discerning the true meaning of the testator, or sometimes in discovering any meaning at all; so that in the end his estate may often be vested quite contrary to these his enigmatical intentions, because perhaps he has omitted one or two formal words, which are necessary to ascertain the sense with indisputable legal precision, or has executed his will in the presence of fewer witnesses than the law requires.


But to proceed from private concerns to those of a more public consideration. All gentlemen of fortune are, in consequence of their property, liable to be called upon to establish the rights, to estimate the injuries, to weigh the accusations, and sometimes to dispose of the lives of their fellow-subjects, by serving upon juries. In this situation they have frequently a right to decide, and that upon their oaths, questions of nice importance, in the solution of which some legal skill is requisite; especially where the law and the fact, as it often happens, are intimately blended together. And the general incapacity, even of our best juries, to do this with any tolerable propriety, has greatly debased their authority; and has unavoidably thrown more power into the hands of the judges, to direct, control, and even reverse their verdicts, than perhaps the constitution intended:


But it is not as a juror only that the English gentleman is called upon to determine questions of right, and distribute justice to his fellow-subjects; it is principally with this order of men that the commission of the peace is filled. And here a very ample field is opened for a gentleman to exert his talents, by maintaining good order in his neighborhood; by punishing the dissolute and idle; by protecting the peaceable and industrious; and above all, by healing petty differences and preventing vexatious prosecutions. But in order to attain these desirable ends, it is necessary that the magistrate should understand his business; and have not only the will, but the power also, (under which must be included the knowledge) of administering legal and effectual justice. Else, when he has mistaken his authority, through passion through ignorance, or absurdity, he will be the object of contempt from his inferiors, and of censure from those to whom he is accountable for his conduct.


Yet farther; most gentlemen of considerable property, at some period or other in their lives, are ambitious of representing their country in parliament: and those, who are ambitious of receiving so high a trust, would also do well to remember its nature and importance. They are not thus honorably distinguished from the rest of their fellow-subjects, merely that they may privilege their persons, their estates, or their domestics; that they may list under party banners; may grant or with-hold supplies; may vote with or vote against a popular or unpopular administration; but upon considerations far more interesting and important. They are the guardians of the English constitution; the makers, repealers, and interpreters of the English laws; delegated to watch, to check, and to avert every dangerous innovation, to propose, to adopt, and to cherish any solid and well-weighed improvement; bound by every tie of nature, of honor, and of religion, to transmit that constitution and those laws to their posterity, amended if possible, at least without any derogation. And how unbecoming must it appear in a member of the legislature to vote for a new law, who is utterly ignorant of the old! What kind of interpretation can he be enabled to give, who is a stranger to the text upon which he comments!


Indeed it is perfectly amazing, that there should be no other state of life, no other occupation, art, or science, in which some method of instruction is not looked upon as requisite, except only the science of legislation, the noblest and most difficult of any. Apprenticeships are held necessary to almost every art, commercial or mechanical: a long course of reading and study must form the divine, the physician, and the practical professors of the laws: but every man of superior fortune clinks himself born a legislator. Yet Tully was of a different opinion; “it is necessary,” says he, “for a senator to be thoroughly acquainted with the constitution; and this, (he declares,) is a knowledge of the most extensive nature; a matter of science, of diligence, of reflection; without which no senator can possibly be fit for his office.”


The mischiefs that have arisen to the public from inconsiderate alterations in our laws, are too obvious to be called in question; and how far they have been owing to the defective education of our senators, is a point well worthy the public attention. The common law of England has fared like other venerable edifices of antiquity, which rash and inexperienced workmen have ventured to new-dress and refine, with all the rage of modern improvement. Hence frequently its symmetry has been destroyed, its proportions distorted, and its majestic simplicity exchanged for specious embellishments and fantastic novelties. For, to say the truth, almost all the perplexed questions, almost all the niceties, intricacies, and delays, (which have sometimes disgraced the English, as well as other courts of justice) owe their original not to the common law itself, but to innovations that have been made in it by acts of parliament; “overladen” (as sir Edward Coke expresses it “with provisos and additions, and many times on a sudden penned or corrected by men of none or very little judgment in law.” This great and well experienced judge declares, that in all his time he never knew two questions made upon rights merely depending upon the common law; and warmly laments the confusion introduced by ill-judging and unlearned legislators. “But if,” he subjoins, “acts of parliament were after the old fashion penned, by such only as perfectly knew what the common law was before the making of any act of parliament concerning that matter, as also how far forth former statutes had provided remedy for former mischiefs, and defects discovered by experience; then should very few questions in law arise, and the learned should not so often and so much perplex their heads to make atonement and peace, by construction of law, between insensible and disagreeing words, sentences, and provisos, as they now do.” And if this inconvenience was so heavily felt in the reign of queen Elizabeth, you may judge how the evil is increased in later times, when the statute book is swelled to ten times a larger bulk: unless it should be found, that the penners of our modern statutes have proportionally better informed themselves in the knowledge of the common law.


[Even in the times of Elizabeth, the statutes written by Parliament had made a mess of the whole body of the law; rules established at Common Law now abutted innovations of Parliamentarians who did not well know the Common Law. The crisis was even worse during the reign of George III, when Blackstone wrote.]


What is said of our gentlemen in general, and the propriety of their application to the study of the laws of their country, will hold equally strong or still stronger with regard to the nobility of this realm, except only in the article of serving upon juries. But, instead of this, they have several peculiar provinces of far greater consequence and concern; being not only by birth hereditary counselors of the crown, and judges upon their honor of the lives of their brother peers, but also arbiters of the property of all their fellow-subjects, and that in the last resort. In this their judicial capacity they are hound to decide the nicest and most critical points of the law: to examine and correct such errors as have escaped the most experienced sages of the profession, the lord keeper and the judges of the courts at Westminster. Their sentence is final, decisive, irrevocable: no appeal, no correction, not even a review, can be had: and to their determination, whatever it be, the inferior courts of justice must conform; otherwise the rule of property would no longer be uniform and steady.


Should a judge in the most subordinate jurisdiction be deficient in the knowledge of the law, it would reflect infinite contempt upon himself, and disgrace upon those who employ him. And yet the consequence of his ignorance is comparatively very trifling and small: his judgment may be examined, and his errors rectified, by other courts. But how much more serious and affecting is the case of a superior judge, if without any skill in the laws he will boldly venture to decide a question, upon which the welfare and subsistence of whole families may depend! where the chance of his judging right, or wrong, is barely equal; and where, if he chances to judge wrong, he does an injury of the most alarming nature, an injury without possibility of redress!


Yet, vast as this trust is, it can no where be so properly reposed, as in the noble hands where our excellent constitution has placed it: and therefore placed it, because, from the independence of their fortune and the dignity of their station, they are presumed to employ that leisure which is the consequence of both, in attaining a more extensive knowledge of the laws than persons of inferior rank: and because the founders of our polity relied upon that delicacy of sentiment, so peculiar to noble birth; which, as on the one hand it will prevent either interest or affection from interfering in questions of right, so on the other it will bind a peer in honor, an obligation which the law esteems equal to another’s oath, to be master of those points upon which it is his birthright to decide.


[Men of leisure are the only ones capable of giving requisite time to the study of law]


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Nor will some degree of legal knowledge be found in the least superfluous to persons of inferior rank; especially those of the learned professions. The clergy in particular, besides the common obligations they are under in proportion to their rank and fortune, have also abundant reason, considered merely as clergymen, to be acquainted with many branches of the law, which are almost peculiar and appropriated to themselves alone. Such are the laws relating to advowsons, institutions, and inductions; to simony, and simoniacal contracts; to uniformity, residence, and pluralities; to tithes and other ecclesiastical clues; to marriages (more especially of late) and to a variety of other subjects, which are consigned to the care of their order by the provisions of particular statutes. To understand these aright, to discern what is warranted or enjoined, and what is forbidden by law, demands a sort of legal apprehension; which is no otherwise to be acquired, than by use and a familiar acquaintance with legal writers.


..[Doctors can also benefit from knowledge of the laws, particularly of wills and estates]


But those gentlemen who intend to profess the civil and ecclesiastical laws, in the spiritual and maritime courts of this kingdom, are of all men (next to common lawyers) the most indispensably obliged to apply themselves seriously to the study of our municipal laws. For the civil and canon laws, considered with respect to any intrinsic obligation, have no force or authority in this kingdom: they are no more binding in England than our laws are binding at Rome. But as far as these foreign laws on account of some peculiar propriety, have in some particular cases, and in some particular courts, been introduced and allowed by our laws, so far they oblige, and no farther; their authority being wholly founded upon that permission and adoption. In which we are not singular in our notions: for even in Holland, where the imperial law is much cultivated and its decisions pretty generally followed, we are informed by Van Leeuwen, that “it receives its force from custom and the consent of the people, tacitly or expressly given: for otherwise, he adds, we should no more be bound by this law, than by that of the Almains, the Franks, the Saxons, the Goths, the Vandals, and other of the ancient nations.” Wherefore, in all points in which the different systems depart from each other, the law of the land takes place of the law of Rome, whether ancient or modern, imperial or pontifical. And, in those of our English courts wherein a reception has been allowed to the civil and canon laws, if either they exceed the bounds of that reception, by extending themselves to other matters than are permitted to them; or if such courts proceed according to the decisions of those laws, in cases wherein it is controlled by the law of the land the common law in either instance both may, and frequently does prohibit and annul their proceedings: and it will not be a sufficient excuse for them to tell the king’s Courts at Westminster, that their practice is warranted by the laws of Justinian or Gregory, or is conformable to the degrees of the Rota or imperial chamber, For which reason it becomes highly necessary for every civilian and canonist, that would act with safety as a judge, or with prudence and reputation as an advocate, to know in what cases and how far the English laws have given sanction to the Roman; in what points the latter are rejected; and where they are both so intermixed and blended together as to form certain supplemental parts of the common law of England distinguished by the titles of the king’s maritime, the king’s military, and the king’s ecclesiastical law. The propriety of which inquiry the university of Oxford has for more than a century so thoroughly seen, that in her statutes she appoints, that one of the three questions to be annually discussed at the act by the jurist-inceptors shall relate to the common law; subjoining this reason, “Quia juris civilis studiosos decet haud imperitos esse juris municipalis, et differentias exteri patriique juris notas habere.” [“For students of civil law should not be ignorant of the municipal law nor of the remarkable differences between their own laws and those of foreign nations.”] And the statutes of the university of Cambridge speak expressly to the same effect.


From the general use and necessity of some acquaintance with the common law, the inference were extremely easy with regard to the propriety of the present institution, in a place to which gentlemen of all ranks and degrees resort, as the fountain of all useful knowledge. But how it has come to pass that a design of this sort has never before taken place in the university, and the reason why the study of our laws has in general fallen into disuse, I shall previously proceed to inquire.


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That ancient collection of unwritten maxims and customs, which is called the common law, however compounded or from whatever fountains derived, had subsisted immemorially in this kingdom; and, though somewhat altered and impaired by the violence of the times, had in great measure weathered the rude shock of the Norman conquest. This had endeared it to the people in general, as well because its decisions were universally known, as because it was found to be excellently adapted to the genius of the English nation. In the knowledge of this law consisted great part of the learning of those dark ages; it was then taught says Mr. Selden, in the monasteries; in the universities, and in the families of the principal nobility. The clergy in particular, as they then engrossed almost every other branch of learning, so (like their predecessors the British Druids) they were peculiarly remarkable for their proficiency in the study of the law. Nullus clericus nisi causidicus [No clergyman who is not a lawyer also], is the character given of them soon after the conquest by William of Malmsbury. The judges therefore were usually created out of the sacred order, as was likewise the case among the Normans; and all the inferior offices were supplied by the lower clergy, which has occasioned their successors to be denominated clerks to this day.


But the common law of England, being not committed to writing; but only handed down by tradition, use, and experience, was not so heartily relished by the foreign clergy; who came over hither in shoals during the reign of the conqueror and his two sons, and were utter strangers to our constitution as well as our language. And an accident, which soon after happened, had nearly completed its ruin. A copy of Justinian’s pandects, being newly discovered at Amalfi, soon brought the civil law into vogue all over the west of Europe, where before it was quite laid aside and in a manner forgotten; though some traces of its authority remained in Italy and the eastern provinces of the empire. This now became in a particular manner the favorite of the popish clergy, who borrowed the method and many of the maxims of their canon law from this original. The study of it was introduced into several universities abroad, particularly that of Bologna; where exercises were performed, lectures read, and degrees conferred in this faculty, as in other branches of science: and many nations on the continent, just then beginning to recover from the convulsions consequent upon the overthrow of the Roman empire, and settling by degrees into peaceable forms of government, adopted the civil law, (being the best written system then extant) as the basis of their several constitutions; blending and interweaving it among their own feudal customs, in some places with a more extensive, in others a more confined authority.


Nor was it long before the prevailing mode of the times reached England. For Theobald, a Norman abbot, being elected to the see of Canterbury, and extremely addicted to this new study, brought over with him in his retinue many learned proficients therein; and among the rest Roger surnamed Vacarius, whom he placed in the university of Oxford, to teach it to the people of this country. But it did not meet with the same easy reception in England, where a mild and rational system of laws had been established, as it did upon the continent; and, though the monkish clergy (devoted to the will of a foreign primate) received it with eagerness and zeal, yet the laity, who were more interested to preserve the old constitution, and had already severely felt the effect of many Norman innovations, continued wedded to the use of the common law. King Stephen immediately published a proclamation, forbidding the study of the laws, then newly imported from Italy; which was treated by the monks as a piece of impiety, and, though it might prevent the introduction of the civil law process into our courts of justice, yet did not hinder the clergy from reading and teaching it in their own schools and monasteries.


[Around the time of the Norman Conquest, Europeans were rushing to the Justinian Code as a way to organize the renascent legal systems and the blossoming civilization. This put especial pressure on the natives of Britain, who sought to protect their ancient laws against these continental incursions. Blackstone portrays this dispute as one particularly between the clergy and the laity]


From this time the nation seems to have been divided into two parties; the bishops and clergy, many of them foreigners, who applied themselves wholly to the study of the civil and canon law, which now came to be inseparably interwoven with each other; and the nobility and laity, who adhered with equal pertinacity to the old common law: both of them reciprocally jealous of what they were unacquainted with, and neither of them perhaps allowing the opposite system that real merit which is abundantly to be found in each. This appears, on the one hand, from the spleen with which the monastic writers speak of our municipal laws upon all occasions; and, on the other, from the firm temper which the nobility showed at the famous parliament of Merton: when the prelates endeavored to procure an act, to declare all bastards legitimate in case the parents intermarried at any time afterwards; alleging this only reason, because holy church (that is, the canon law) declared such children legitimate: but “all the earls and barons (says the parliament roll) with one voice answered, that they would not change the laws of England, which had hitherto been used and approved.” And we find the same jealousy prevailing above a century afterwards, when the nobility declared with a kind of prophetic spirit, “that the realm of England has never been unto this hour, neither by the consent of our lord the king and the lords of parliament shall it ever be, ruled or governed by the civil law.” And of this temper between the clergy and laity many more instances might be given.


While things were in this situation, the clergy, finding it impossible to root out the municipal law, began to withdraw themselves by degrees from the temporal courts...


But wherever they retired and wherever their authority extended, they carried with them the same zeal to introduce the rules of the civil, in exclusion of the municipal law. This appears in a particular manner from the spiritual courts of all denominations, from the chancellor’s courts in both our universities, and from the high court of chancery before mentioned; in all of which the proceedings are to this day in a course much conformed to the civil law: for which no tolerable reason can be assigned, unless that these courts were all under the immediate direction of the popish ecclesiastics, among whom it was a point of religion to exclude the municipal law; pope Innocent the fourth having forbidden the very reading of it by the clergy because its decisions were not founded on the imperial constitutions, but merely on the customs of the laity. And if it be considered, that our universities began about that period to receive their present form of scholastic discipline; that they were then, and continued to be till the time of the reformation, entirely under the influence of the popish clergy; (sir John Mason the first protestant, being also the first lay, chancellor of Oxford) this will lead us to perceive the reason, why the study of the Roman laws was in those days of bigotry pursued with such alacrity in these seats of learning; and why the common law was entirely despised, and esteemed little better than heretical.


[Max Weber note the rationalism of the civil and canon law as opposed to the supposed irrationality of the common law; to men of the Continental form, the common law system reeked of a kind of barbarism, a state where the law was housed in the minds of a kind of shaman class we call judges and lawyers. Weber attributes the native prejudice for the common law as arising out of their need for fees (Economy and Society 977). The entire system of common law Weber refers to as "Khadi-justice," which renders informal judgments in terms of concrete ethical or other practical valuations as opposed to the use of rational rules of decision. Note that Blackstone's claim that the bulk of Englishmen were unlearned in the law, as compared to their Continental counterparts, supports Weber's claim that the common law was protected not owing to its inherent superiority, but by the strong interest group English lawyers constituted against the up-and-coming transgressors.]


And, since the reformation many causes have conspired to prevent its becoming a part of academical education. As, first, long usage and established custom; which, as in everything else, so especially in the forms of scholastic exercise, have justly great weight and authority. Secondly, the real intrinsic merit of the civil law, considered upon the footing of reason and not of obligation, which was well known to the instructors Of our youth and their total ignorance of the merit of the common law, though its equal at least, and perhaps an improvement on the other. But the principal reason of all, that has hindered the introduction of this branch of learning, is, that the study of the common law, being banished from hence in the times of popery, has fallen into a quite different channel, and has hitherto been wholly cultivated in another place. But as the long usage and established custom, of ignorance of the laws of the land, begin now to be thought unreasonable; and as by these means the merit of those laws will probably be more generally known; we may hope that the method of studying them will soon revert to its ancient course, and the foundations at least of that science will be laid in the two universities; without being exclusively confined to the channel which it fell into at the times I have just been describing.


For, being then entirely abandoned by the clergy, a few stragglers excepted, the study and practice of it devolved of course into the hands of laymen: who entertained upon their parts a most hearty aversion to the civil law, and made no scruple to profess their contempt, nay even their ignorance of it, in the most public manner...


The incident which I mean was the fixing the court of common pleas, the grand tribunal for disputes of property, to be held in one certain spot; that the seat of ordinary justice might be permanent and notorious to all the nation. Formerly that, in conjunction with all the other superior courts, was held before the king’s capital justiciary of England, in the aula regis [King’s court], or such of his palaces wherein his royal person resided; and removed with his household from one end of the kingdom to the other. This was found to occasion great inconvenience to the suitors; to remedy which it was made an article of the great charter of liberties, both that of king John and king Henry the third, that “common pleas should no longer follow the king’s court, but be held in some certain place:” in consequence of which they have ever since been held (a few necessary removals in times of the plague excepted) in the palace of Westminster only. This brought together the professors of the municipal law, who before were dispersed about the kingdom, and formed them into an aggregate body; whereby a society was established of persons, who, (as Spelman observes) addicting themselves wholly to the study of the laws of the land, and no longer considering it as a mere subordinate science for the amusement of leisure hours, soon raised those laws to that pitch of perfection, which they suddenly attained under the auspices of our English Justinian, king Edward the first.



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The evident want of some assistance in the rudiments of legal knowledge has given birth to a practice, which, if ever it had grown to be general, must have proved of extremely pernicious consequence. I mean the custom by some so very warmly recommended, of dropping all liberal education, as of no use to students in the law: and placing them, in its stead, at the desk of some skillful attorney; in order to initiate them early in all the depths of practice, and render them more dexterous in the mechanical part of business. A few instances of particular persons, (men of excellent learning, and unblemished integrity,) who, in spite of this method of education, have shone in the foremost ranks of the bar, have afforded some kind of sanction to this illiberal path to the profession, and biased many parents, of short-sighted judgment in its favor: not considering, that there are some geniuses, formed to overcome all disadvantages, and that from such particular instances no general rules can be formed; nor observing, that those very persons have frequently recommended by the most forcible of all examples, the disposal of their own offspring, a very different foundation of legal studies, a regular academical education. Perhaps too, in return, I could now direct their eyes to our principal seats of justice, and suggest a few hints in favor of university learning: . . . but in these all who hear me, I know, have already prevented me.


Making therefore due allowance for one or two shining exceptions, experience may teach us to foretell that a lawyer thus educated to the bar, in subservience to attorneys and solicitors, will find he has begun at the wrong end. If practice be the whole he is taught practice must also be the whole he will ever know: if he be uninstructed in the elements and first principles upon which the rule of practice is founded, the least variation from established precedents will totally distract and bewilder him: ita lex scripta est [so the law is written] is the utmost his knowledge will arrive at; he must never aspire to form, and seldom expect to comprehend, any arguments drawn a priori [beforehand], from the spirit of the laws and the natural foundations of justice.


[Blackstone decries the practice of shoving attorneys straight into practice without giving them a liberal education beforehand. He notes particularly the inability of practitioners to find FIRST PRINCIPLES upon which the law is founded]


Nor is this all; for (as few persons of birth, or fortune, or even of scholastic education, will submit to the drudgery of servitude and the manual labor of copying the trash of an office) should this infatuation prevail to any considerable degree, we must rarely expect to see a gentleman of distinction or learning at the bar. And what the consequence may be, to have their interpretation and enforcement of the laws (which include the entire disposal of our properties, liberties, and lives) fall wholly into the hands of obscure or illiterate men, is a matter of very public concern.


The inconveniences here pointed out can never be effectually prevented, but by making academical education a previous step to the profession of the common law, and at the same time making the rudiments of the law a part of academical education. For sciences are of a sociable disposition, and flourish best in the neighborhood of each other: nor is there any branch of learning, but may be helped and improved by assistance drawn from other arts. If therefore the student in our laws has formed both his sentiments and style, by perusal and imitation of the purest classical writers, among whom the historians and orators will best deserve his regard; if he can reason with precision, and separate argument from fallacy, by the clear simple rules of pure unsophisticated logic; if he can fix his attention, and steadily pursue truth through any the most intricate deduction, by the use of mathematical demonstrations; if he has enlarged his conceptions of nature and art, by a view of the several branches of genuine, experimental philosophy; if he has impressed on his mind the sound maxims of the law of nature, the best and most authentic foundation of human laws; if, lastly he has contemplated those maxims reduced to a practical system in the laws of imperial Rome; if he has done this or any part of it, (though all maybe easily done under as able instructors as ever graced any seats of learning) a student thus qualified may enter upon the study of the law with incredible advantage and reputation. And if, at the conclusion, or during the acquisition of these accomplishments, he will afford himself here a year or two’s farther leisure, to lay the foundation of his future labors in a solid scientific method, without thirsting too early to attend that practice which it is impossible he should rightly comprehend, he will afterwards proceed with the greatest ease, and will unfold the most intricate points with an intuitive rapidity and clearness.


[We might compare this with Cardinal Newman's defense of liberal education; Newman places theology at the center of his ideal university, and in a sense Blackstone places theology at the center of his study of law, as we shall see in Chapter Two]



Before I conclude, it may perhaps be expected, that I lay before you a short and general account of the method I propose to follow, in endeavoring to execute the trust you have been pleased to repose in my hands...


He should consider his course as a general map of the law, marking out the shape of the country, its connections and boundaries, its greater divisions and principalities: it is not his business to describe minutely the subordinate limits, or to fix the longitude and latitude of every inconsiderable hamlet. His attention should be engaged, like that of the readers in Fortescue’s inns of chancery, “in tracing out the originals, and as it were the elements of the law.” For if, as Justinian has observed, the tender understanding of the student be loaded at the first with a multitude and variety of matter, it will either occasion him to desert his studies, or will carry him heavily through them, with much labor, delay, and despondence. These originals should be traced to their fountains, as well as our distance will permit; to the customs of the Britons and Germans, as recorded by Caesar and Tacitus; to the codes of the northern nations on the continent, and more especially to those of our own Saxon princes; to the rules of the Roman law either left here in the days of Papinian, or imported by Vacarius and his followers; but, shove all, to that inexhaustible reservoir of legal antiquities and learning, the feudal law, or, as Spelman has entitled it, the law of nations in our western orb. These primary rules and fundamental principles should be weighed and compared with the precepts of the law of nature, and the practice of other countries; should be explained by reasons, illustrated by examples, and confirmed by undoubted authorities; their history should be deduced, their changes and revolutions observed, and it should be shown how far they are connected with, or have at anytime been affected by, the civil transactions of the kingdom.


A plan of this nature, if executed with care and ability, cannot fail of administering a most useful and rational entertainment to students of all ranks and professions; and yet it must be confessed that the study of the laws is not merely a matter of amusement; for, as a very judicious writer has observed upon a similar occasion, the learner “will be considerably disappointed if he looks for entertainment without the expense of attention.” An attention, however, not greater than is usually bestowed in mastering the rudiments of other sciences, or sometimes in pursuing a favorite recreation or exercise. And this attention not equally necessary to be exerted by every student upon every occasion. Some branches of the law, as the formal process of civil suits, and the subtle distinctions incident to landed property, which are the most difficult to be thoroughly understood, are the least worth the pains of understanding, except to such gentlemen as intend to pursue the profession. To others I may venture to apply, with a slight alteration, the words of sir John Fortescue, when first his royal pupil determines to engage in this study. “It will not be necessary for a gentleman as such, to examine with close application the critical niceties of the law. It will fully be sufficient, and he may well enough be denominated. A lawyer, if under the instruction of a master, he traces up the principles and grounds of the law, even to their original elements. Therefore in a very short period, and with very little labor, he may be sufficiently informed in the laws of his county, if he will but apply his mind in good earnest to receive and apprehend them. For, though such knowledge as is necessary for a judge is hardly to be acquired by the lucubrations of twenty years, yet, with a genius of tolerable perspicacity, that knowledge which is fit for a person of birth or condition may be learned in a single year, without neglecting his other improvements.”


[Blackstone believes a sound legal instruction can be had in one year, if young attorneys are taught the principles and grounds of law rather than being dependent on smatterings of statutes. We perhaps see one of the reasons why statutory law has been such an evil, for where the depredations of the Parliament are made the entirety of the law, the instruction of ration and principles alone can be no sure guide]