« PreviousContinue »
Chancellor and Heads of Houses, and afterwards prefixed to the first Volume of his Commentaries.
His Lectures had now gained such universal applause, that he was requested by a noble personage, who superintended the education of our present Sovereign, then Prince of Wales, to read them to his Royal Highness: but, as he was at that time engaged to a numerous class of pupils in the University, he thought he could not, consistently with that engagement, comply with this request, and therefore declined it. But he transmitted copies of many of them for the perusal of his Royal Highness; who, far from being offended at an excuse grounded on so honourable a motive, was pleased to order a handsome gratuity to be presented to him.
And here the Editor hopes it will not be thought too presumptuous in him to suppose, that this early knowledge of the character and abilities of the Professor laid the first foundation in his Majesty's royal breast of that good opinion and esteem, which afterwards promoted him to the Bench; and, when he was no more, occasioned the extension of the Royal bounty, in the earliest hours of her heavy loss, (unthought of and unsolicited), to his widow and his numerous family.
In the year 1759, he published two small pieces merely relative to the University: the one intituled, Reflections on the Opinions of Messrs. Pratt, Morton, and Wilbraham, relating to Lord Litchfield's Disqualification, who was then a candidate for the Chancellorship; the other, A Case for the Opinion of Counsel on the Right of the University to make new Statutes.
Having now established a reputation by his Lectures, which he justly thought might entitle him to some particular notice at the Bar, in June, 1759, he bought chambers in the Temple, resigned the office of Assessor of the Vice-Chancellor's Court, which he had held about six years, and, soon after, the Stewardship of AllSouls College; and, in Michaelmas Term, 1759, resumed his attendance at Westminster; still continuing to pass some part of the year at Oxford, and to read his Lectures there, at such times as did not interfere with the London Terms. The year before this he declined the honour of the Coif, which he was pressed to accept of by Lord Chief Justice Willes, and Mr. Justice (now Earl) Bathurst.
In November, 1759, he published a new edition of the Great Charter and Charter of the Forest; which added much to his former reputation, not only as a great lawyer, but as an accurate antiquarian and an able historian. It must also be added, that the external beauties in the printing, the types, &c. reflected no small honour on him, as the principal reformer of the Clarendon press, from whence no work had ever before issued equal, in those particulars, to this.
This publication drew him into a short controversy with the late Dr. Lyttelton, then Dean of Exeter, and afterwards Bishop of Carlisle.—The Dean, to assist Mr. Blackstone in his publication, had favoured him with the collation of a very curious, ancient Roll, containing both the Great Charter and that of the Forest, of the 9th of Henry the 3d, which he and many of his friends judged to be an original. The Editor of the Charters, however, thought otherwise, and excused himself (in a note in iiis Introduction) for having made no use of its various readings, "as the plan of his "edition was confined to Charters which had passed the Great "Seal, or else to authentic entries and enrolments of record, "under neither of which classes the Roll in question could be "ranked."
The Dean upon this, concerned for the credit of his roll, presented to the Antiquary Society a vindication of its authenticity, dated June the 8th, 1761, and Mr. Blackstone delivered in an answer to the same learned body, dated May the 28th, 1762, alleging as an excuse for the trouble he gave them, " that he should "think himself wanting in that respect, which he owed to the So"ciety and Dr. Lyttelton, if he did not either own and correct "his mistake, in the octavo edition then preparing for the press, "or submit to the Society's judgment the reasons at large, upon "which his suspicions were founded." These reasons, we may suppose, were convincing, for here the dispute ended*.
About the same time he also published a small Treatise on the Law of Descents in fee simple.
A dissolution of Parliament having taken place, he was in March, 1761, returned burgess for Hindon in Wiltshire; and on the 6th of May following had a patent of precedence granted him to rank as King's Counsel, having a few months before declined the office of Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, in Ireland.
Finding himself not deceived in his expectations in respect to an increase of business in his profession, he now determined to settle in life, and, on the 5th of May, 1761, he married Sarah, the eldest surviving daughter of the late James Clitherow, of Boston House, in the county of Middlesex, Esquire; with whom he passed near nineteen years, in the enjoyment of the purest domestic and conjugal felicity, (for which no man was better calculated), and which, he used often to declare, was the happiest part of his life. By her he had nine children, the eldest and youngest of whom died infants; seven survived him, viz. Henry, James, William, Charles, Sarah, Mary, and Philippa; the eldest not much above the age of sixteen at his death.
His marriage having vacated his fellowship at All-Souls, he was, on the 38th of July, 1761, appointed by the Earl of Westmorland, at that time Chancellor of Oxford, Principal of New Inn Hall. This was an agreeable residence during the time his lectures required him to be in Oxford, and was attended with this additional pleasing circumstance, that it gave him rank, as the head of a house in the University, and enabled him, by that means, to continue to promote whatever occurred to him, that might be useful and beneficial to that learned body.
* It may be here mentioned, that, as an land on it, was one of those, which all per
Antiquarian, and a member of this Society, sons having the exercise of ecclesiastical ju
into which he was admitted February the risdiction, were obliged by the statute of the
5th, 1781, he wrote "A Letter to the Hon- 1st of Ed. 6th, ch. 2, to make use of. This
"ourable Daines Barrington, describing an Letter is printed in the 3d volume Of the
"antique seal, with some observations on Arclixologia; but his discussion of the me
"its original, and the two successive Con- rits of the Lyttelton Roll, though containing
"troversies which the disuse of it afterwards much good antiquarian criticism, has not
"occasioned." yet been made public—Note to the Firit
This Seal, having the royal arms of Eng- Edition.
An attempt being made about this time to restrain the power given him, as Professor, by the Vinerian statutes, to nominate a deputy to read the solemn lectures, he published a state of the case for the perusal of the Members of Convocation, upon which it was dropped.
In the following year, 1762, he collected and republished several of his pieces under the title of Law Tracts, in two volumes, octavo.
In 1763, on the establishment of the Queen's family, he was appointed Solicitor-General to her Majesty; and was chosen about the same time a Bencher of the Middle Temple.
Many imperfect and incorrect copies of his lectures having by this time got abroad, and a pirated edition of them being either published, or preparing for publication in Ireland, he found himself under a necessity of printing a correct edition himself; and in November, 1765, published the first volume, under the title of Commentaries on the Laws of England, and in the course of the four succeeding years the other three volumes; which completed a Work, that will transmit his name to posterity among the first class of English authors, and will be universally read and admired, as long as the laws, the constitution, and the language of this country remain.
In the year 1766, he resigned the Vinerian Professorship, and the Principality of New Inn Hall; finding he could not discharge the personal duties of the former, consistently with his professional attendance in London, or the delicacy of his feelings as an honest man.
Thus was he detached from Oxford, to the inexpressible loss of that University, and the great regret of all those who wished well to the establishment of the study of the law therein. When he first turned his views towards the Vinerian Professorship, he had formed a design of settling in Oxford for life: He had flattered himself, that by annexing the office of Professor to the Principality of one of the Halls, (and perhaps converting it into a college), and placing Mr. Viner's fellows and scholars under their Professor, a society might be established for students of the common law, similar to that of Trinity-Hall in Cambridge, for civilians.
Mr. Viner's will very much favoured this plan. He leaves to the University "all his personal estate, books, &c. for the con"stituting, establishing, and endowing one or more Fellowship or "Fellowships, and Scholarship or Scholarships, in any College or "Hall in the said University, as to the Convocation shall be "thought most proper for Students of the Common Law." But notwithstanding this plain direction to establish them in some College or Hall, the clause from the Delegates, which ratified this designation, had the fate to be rejected by a negative in Convocation.
By this unexpected, and, I must assume the liberty of saying, unmerited rejection, Mr. Blackstone's prospects in Oxford had no longer the same allurement to make him think of a lasting settlement there. His views of an established society for the study of the common law were at an end, and no room left him for exerting, in this instance, that ardour for improvement which constituted a distinguishing part of his character.
In the new Parliament, chosen in 1768, he was returned burgess for Westbury in Wiltshire.
In the course of this Parliament, the question, "whether a "member expelled was or was not eligible in the same Parliament," was frequently agitated in the House with much warmth, and what fell from him in a debate being deemed by some persons contradictory to what he had advanced on the same subject in his Commentaries, he was attacked with much asperity in a pamphlet supposed to be written by a baronet, a member of that House. To this charge he gave an early reply in print.
In the same year, Dr. Priestly animadverted on some positions in the same work, relative to offences against the doctrine of the Established Church, to which he published an answer.
The Compiler of these sheets, desirous of avoiding all controversy, contents himself with the bare mentioning these two publications, without giving any opinion concerning their respective merits. As the works of the author whose life he is writing, it is his duty not to omit the mention of them: but how far the charges of his antagonists were founded in reason, and supported by argument; or whether he by his answers sufficiently exculpated himself from those charges, must be left to the determination of those who have been, or may become readers of them. The Compiler's only intent is to write a faithful narrative, not a professed panegyric. i '"';''•'•'•'■T*'
Mr. Blackstone's reputation as a great and able lawyer was now so thoroughly established, that had he been possessed of a constitution equal to the fatigues attending the most extensive business of the profession, he might probably have obtained its most lucrative emoluments and highest offices. The offer of the Solicitor-Generalship, on the resignation of Mr. Dunning in January, 1770, opened the most flattering prospects to his view. But the attendance on its complicated duties at the Bar, and in the House of Commons, induced him to refuse it.
But though he declined this path, which so certainly, with abilities like Mr. Blackstone's, leads to the highest dignities in the law, yet he readily accepted the office of Judge of the Common Pleas, when offered to him on the resignation of Mr. Justice Clive; to which he was appointed on the 9tn of February, 1770. Previous, however, to the passing his patent, Mr. Justice Yates expressed an earnest wish to remove from the King's Bench to the Court of Common Pleas. To this wish Mr. Blackstone, from motives of personal esteem, consented; but, on his death, which happened between the ensuing Easter and Trinity Terms, Mr. Blackstone was appointed to his original destination in the Common Pleas.
YOL. I. b
On his promotion to the Bench he resigned the recordership of Wallingford.
As it has been before remarked, that this is not intended as a panegyric, but only as a faithful, though unadorned, narrative, nothing shall here be said of his conduct as a Judge. His loss is too recent to need any remarks on it to his contemporaries, who have been witnesses of that conduct, and heard his decisions: to posterity, the latter part of the work to which this is prefixed will speak sufficiently, as the second volume is entirely composed of cases determined whilst he sat on the Bench.
He seemed now arrived at the point he always wished for, and might justly be said to enjoy oiium cum digmtatc. Freed from the attendance at the Bar, and what he had still a greater aversion to, in the Senate, "where," to use his own expression, "amid the "rage of contending parties, a man of moderation must expect to "meet with no quarter from any side," although he diligently and conscientiously attended the duties of the high office he was now placed in, yet the leisure afforded by the legal Vacations he dedicated to the private duties of life, which, as the father of a numerous family, he now found himself called upon to exercise, or to literary retirement, and the society of his friends, at his villa called Priory Place, in Wallingford, which he purchased soon after his marriage, though he had for some years before occasionally resided at it.
His connexion with this town, both from his office of Recorder, and his more or less frequent residence there from about the year 1750, led him to form and promote every plan which could contribute to its benefit or improvement. To his activity it stands indebted for two new turnpike roads through the town, the one opening a communication, by means of a new bridge over the Thames at Shillingford, between Oxford and Reading, the other to Wantage, through the vale of Berkshire*. What substantial advantage the town of Wallingford derived from hence will be best evidenced from the gradual increase of its malt trade between the years 1744) and 1779, extracted from the entries of the ExciseOffice during that period, as contained in the note belowf.
To his architectural talents, his liberal disposition, his judicious real, and his numerous friends, Wallingford likewise owes the rebuilding that handsome fabric, St. Peter's Church.
These were his employments in retirement. In London his active mind was never idle, and when not occupied in the duties of his station, he was ever engaged in some scheme of public utility. The last of this kind in which he was concerned, was the
• He was ever a great promoter of the f An average account of the number of
improvement of public roads. The new net bushels of malt made in Wallingford
western road from Oxford over Botely Cause- from Midsummer 1749 to Midsummer 1779,
way was projected, and the plan of it chiefly inclusive:
conducted by him. He was the more earnest Average of 5 yrs. ending Midsr. 1754 49,172
in this design, not merely as a work of ge- Do. . . of do. . . . 1759 58,676
neral utility and ornament, but as a solid ira- Do. . . of do. . . . 1764 97,370
provement to the estate of a nobleman, in Do. . . of do. . . . 1769 101,086
settling whose affairs he had been most la- Do. . . of do. . . . 1774 113,135
boriously and beneficially employed.—Note Do. . . of do. . . . 1779 107,254
to Firit Edition. —Note to First Edition.