« PreviousContinue »
and formed a new arrangement and classification of the books. In May, 1749, as a small reward for his services, and to afford him further opportunities of advancing the interests of the college, he was appointed Steward of their Manors. In the same year, on the resignation of his uncle, Seymour Richmond, Esq., he was elected recorder of the borough of Wallingford, in Berkshire, and received the king's approbation on the 30th of May. On the 26th of April, 1750, he commenced Doctor of Civil Law, and thereby became a member of the convocation. About this time he published An Essay on Col Lateral Consanguinity. The design of the work was to attack the claims of those who, on the ground of kindred with Archbishop Chichele, the founder of All-Souls, asserted a right of being elected in preference to all others into that society. He undertook to prove that as the archbishop, who by the canons could not lawfully marry, never had any legitimate lineal descendants, the great lapse of time since his death, by the rules both of the civil and canon law, had put an end to all collateral relationship,--or, in other words, that all mankind might be presumed equally akin to the founder. The college acted on this doctrine; but Archbishop Secker, in 1762, as visitor, reversed their decision. Secker's successor, Archbishop Cornwallis, chose Blackstone one of his assessors, and with his assistance, and that of Dr. Hay, an eminent civilian, formed a regulation which, without entirely setting aside all claims founded on the express words of the college-statutes, limited the number of the founder's kin who could be admitted,-a regulation which in a great measure removed the inconvenience and gave satisfaction on all sides.
It was about the year 1750 that Blackstone first began to plan his Lectures on the Laws of England. Le despaired of success at the bar, and determined to confine himself to his fellowship and an academical life, continuing the practice of his profession as provincial counsel. In Michaelmas Term, 1753, he delivered his first course at Oxford. Whether from the novelty of the subject or the reputation of the lecturer, his first course was numerously attended. Nor did the interest flag. Such was the elegance of style and popular character of the course, that attendance soon became the fashion. In 1754, he found it worth while, from the number attending, to publish his Analysis of the Laws of England, for the use of his hearers. It is founded on a similar work by Sir Matthew Hale, with some alterations, not generally regarded as improvements.
In July, 1755, he was appointed one of the delegates of the Clarendon Press. He entered upon this office with that determination to do his whole duty which characterized him in every other situation in which he was placed. He found that abuses had crept into that trust; and, in order to obtain a clearer insight into the matter, and to be better qualified to enter upon the task of correcting them, he made himself master of the mechanical art of printing. He proposed a valuable reform, which he had the pleasure of seeing successfully put in execution, much to the advantage of the university. He wrote a small tract on the Management of the University Press, which he left for the ase of his successors in that office. In 1757, he was elected by the surviving visitors nt Michel's new foundation in Queen's College into that body. There had been
a long dispute between the members of the old and the new foundation. Heru again he exerted himself successfully; and principally through his instrumentality this donation became a valuable acquisition to the college, as well as an ornament to the university, by the completion of that handsome pile of buildings towards the High Street which for many years had been little better than a confused heap of ruins. Dr. Blackstone drew up a body of statutes for the regulation of the endowment, which was confirmed by: Act of Parliament in the year 1769.
Mr. Viner having bequeathed to the University of Oxford a considerable sum of money and the copyright of his Abridgment of Law, for the purpose of instituting a professorship of Common Law, with fellowships and scholarships, Dr. Blackstone was, on the 20th of October, 1758, unanimously elected first Vinerian Professor. He lost no time in entering upon his duties, and on the 25th of the same month delivered his Introductory Lecture on the Study of the Law,-certainly, if no sketch had previously existed, a most remarkable composition to be prepared in so short a period of time. At the request of the Vice-Chancellor and heads of houses, he published this introductory, and afterwards prefixed it to his Commentaries. His lectures soon became celebrated throughout the kingdom. He was requested to read them to the Prince of Wales, (afterwards George III. ;) but, being at that time engaged with a numerous class of pupils at Oxford, whom he did not think it right to leave, he declined the honour. However, he transmitted copies for the prince's perusal, who in return sent him a handsome present.
In 1756, he had resumed his attendance at Westminster, coming up to town every winter and showing himself in court each Michaelmas and Hilary Term,for the purpose, doubtless, of making himself known. He does not record, however, that he was engaged in any cause. In June, 1759, he resigned his offices of Assessor in the Vice-Chancellor's Court and Steward of All-Souls Manors, and purchased chambers in the Temple, where he came to reside. He did not appear in court until Trinity Term, 1760; nor, indeed, does it seem that he ever acquired much celebrity as an advocate. His principal practice was as a chamber counsel. That he was commanding notice and regard in the profession appears from the fact that Lord Chief Justice Willes and Mr. Justice Bathurst invited him to take the coif, which he declined, -probably from an nomical reasons. The expense accompanying that honour was considerable; and in that which Blackstone felt to be more his professional line, the advantages and privileges of the order—principally then the monopoly of the practice at the bar of the Common Pleas—were not sufficient to counterbalance its expense and inconvenience. In the same year (1759) he published two small pieces relative to the university: the one entitled Reflections on the Opinions of Messrs. Pratt, Morton, and Wilbraham, reli ting to Lord Litchfield's Disqua lification, 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. In November, 1759, he published a new edition of the Great Charter and Charter of the Forest, and also a tract on the Law of Descents in Fee
Simple. As to the former, while the mechanical execution reflected great honour on the author as the principal reformer of the Clarendon Press, from which no volume had ever before issued equal in beauty to this, the work itself added materially to his former reputation as a lawyer and antiquary. It led him, however, into an unpleasant controversy with Dr. Lyttelton, Dean of Exeter, afterwards Bishop of Carlisle, in regard to the authenticity of an ancient roll, containing the Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest, belonging to Lord Lyttelton, which, however, Blackstone did not consider an original.
The first cause of any interest which he argued was that of Robinson vs. Bland, in Trinity Term, 1760. The question was whether a gaming-debt, contracted in France could be recovered in England. It is to be found reported 1 W. Blacks. 234, 256; 2 Burr. 1077. His argument is certainly elaborate and ingenious. The next cause in which he appears to have been engaged was, in a legal point of view, decidedly the most interesting that ever came before the courts,-namely, the common-law right of literary property. It was the case of Tonson vs. Collins, 1 Sir W. Blacks. 301, 321. Blackstone's admirable argument is to be found at p. 321. After this, it would be tedious and uninteresting to trace his connection with other important cases at the bar. In 1761, the appointment of Chief-Justice of the Common Pleas for Ireland was offered to him, but declined. In March of the same year, he was returned to Parliament for Hindon, in Wiltshire, and on May 6th received a patent of precedence. On the 5th May, 1761, he married the daughter of James Clitherow, Esq., of Boston House, in the county of Middlesex. Having by this marriage vacated his fellowship of All-Souls, he was on the 28th of July, 1761, appointed Principal of New Inn Hall, by the Earl of Westmoreland, then Chancellor of Oxford. This appointment, besides the rank it gave him in the university, assured him an agreeable residence during the delivery of his lectures. In 1762, he collected and republished several of his pieces, under the title of Law Tracts, in two volumes octavo. In 1763, he was appointed Solicitor-General to the Queen, and elected about the same time a Bencher of the Middle Temple. In 1765 appeared the first volume of the Commentaries,—twelve years after the delivery of his original lectures; and the other three volumes were published in the course of the four succeeding years.
In 1766, he resigned the Vinerian professorship, and at the same time the principality of New Inn Hall. He had hoped that the professorship might be permanently connected with some college or hall, as Mr. Viner had contemplated, and thus a permanent settlement in Oxford be rendered agreeable. But this plan was rejected in convocation, and thus his views of a lasting settlement disappointed.
In 1768, he was returned to Parliament for the borough of Westbury, in Wiltshire, and took part in the debates relative to the election of John Wilkes, when his adversaries observed and pointed out an inconsistency between his position and the doctrine laid down in his Commentaries on the subject. He
published a pamphlet on the subject, which drew upon him oevere sarcasms from the author of Junius. In the same year Dr. Priestley animadverted on his positions in the Commentaries relative to offences against the doctrine of the Established Church, and Dr. Furneaux addressed him some letters on his Exposition of the Toleration Act. He published an answer to Dr. Priestley, and in subsequent editions modified the passages in which errors and inaccuracies had been pointed out.
He was offered the Solicitor-Generalship by Lord North in January, 1770, on the resignation of Dunning. He accepted, however, the position of a Judge of the Common Pleas, on the resignation of Mr. Justice Clive. He was of course called to the degree of Sergeant, and gave rings with the motto "Secundis dubiisque rectus.” “But, Mr. Justice Yates being desirous to retire" (to use Blackstone's own words) “into the court of Common Pleas, I consented to exchange with him; and accordingly (February 16th) I kissed his majesty's hand on being appointed a Judge of the King's Bench, and received the honour of knighthood." Sir Joseph Yates did not long survive his retirement; for on the Whit-Sunday following he was taken ill at church, and died on Thursday following, "to the great loss of the public, and the court of Common Pleas in particular, wherein he sat one term only.” On this event Sir William Blackstone likewise “retired into the court of Common Pleas," which, says Burrow, "he was always understood to have in view whenever opportunity offered.”
Sir William Blackstone maintained the reputation he had previously acquired by his performance of his duties on the bench. There are several very elaborate judgments of his, in his own reports, upon important and difficult questions, which display his ability and research to great advantage. The court of Common Pleas during the time of Blackstone differed in opinion only upon two cases. In both he dissented. The first was Scott vs. Shepherd, (2 W. Bl. 892,) relative to the distinction between actions of trespass and on the case; the other, Goodright dem. Rolfe vs. Harwood, (2 W. Bl. 937,) in which the judgment of the Common Pleas was unanimously reversed by the King's Bench, and that reversal confirmed by the House of Lords, upon the opinions of the Barons of the Exchequer. The opinion of Sir William Blackstone in the celebrated case of Perrin vs. Blake (1 W. Bl. 672) has been always highly esteemed as a most ingenious and able view of the knotty question which arose in that case, and has attained a very just celebrity. It may well be doubted whether Mr. Roscoe is sustained by the facts in the opinion which he has so confidently expressed, -that "after the publication of the Commentaries the legal acquirements of Blackstone rather declined than advanced.”
He had purchased shortly after his marriage a villa, called Priory Place, in Wallingford. He exerted himself, with his accustomed activity, in the promotion of every plan for the improvement of his neighbourhood, not only subEtantially in the opening of roads and building of bridges, but ornamentally in the rebuilding of that handsome fabric, St. Peter's Church. Such were his employments at home. In London, besides the duties of his public post, he was generally engaged in some scheme of public utility. In the latter part
of his life he devoted much time to the consideration of the subject of prisondiscipline. He exerted himself, in conjunction with John Howard, to procure an Act of Parliament for the establishment of Penitentiary Houses near London, the objects of which should be "to seclude the criminals from their former associates; to separate those of whom hopes might be entertained from those who were desperate; to teach them useful trades; to accustom them to habits of industry; to give them religious instruction; and to provide them with a recommendation to the world, and the means of obtaining an honest livelihood after the expiration of the term of their imprisonment.” The statute 19 Geo. III. c. 74 was accordingly passed; and, though it did not produce all the beneficial effects that were expected from it, it led the way to more just and rational views of prison-discipline. In one of his charges to a grand jury, he referred to the establishment of penitentiaries under this act in the following terms: "In these houses the convicts are to be separately confined during the intervals of their labours, debarred from all incentives to debauchery, instructed in religion and morality, and forced to work for the benefit of the public. Imagination cannot figure to itself a species of punishment in which terror, benevolence, and reformation are more happily blended together. What can be more dreadful to the riotous, the libertine, the voluptuous, the idle delinquent, than solitude, confinement, sobriety, and constant labour? Yet what can be more truly beneficial ? Solitude will awaken reflection, confinement will banish temptation, sobriety will restore vigour, and labour will beget a habit of honest industry; while the aid of a religious instructor may implant new principles in his heart, and, when the date of his punishment is expired, will conduce both to his temporal and eternal welfare. Such a prospect as this is surely well worth the trouble of an experiment."
He indulged, also, in literary labours to some extent. The only fruits of these, however, are "An Account of the Dispute between Addison and Pope," communicated to Dr. Kippis, and by him published in the “Biographia Britannica," in the Life of Addison; and some notes upon Shakspeare, which are published in Malone's edition of 1780, marked by the final letter of his name.
He did not, however, long continue to enjoy this life of quiet usefulness, honour, and happiness. Sedentary employments, such as those in which he delighted, are never conducive to health. As he advanced in age, he became corpulent, and was occasionally visited by gout, dropsy, and vertigo. About Christmas, 1779, he was seized with a violent shortness of breath, which his physicians attributed to his dropsical habit and to water on the chest; and their prescriptions gave him a temporary relief. He was able to come to town to attend Hilary Term,—when he was again attacked in a more formidable shape, chiefly in his head, which induced a drowsiness and stupor that bafiled all the skill of his medical attendants. After lying in a state of insensibility for several days, he expired at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, on the 14th of February, 1780, being in the fifty-seventh year of his age. He was buried at St. Peter's Church, Wallingford,—his friend Dr. Barrington, Bishop of Llandaff, officiating at his funeral.