« PreviousContinue »
He had nine children, of whom seven survived him. Henry Blickstone, the reporter, was his nephew, and died from the effects of over-exertion in his profession. Of his sons, James enjoyed nearly the same univeržity preferments as his father: he was Fellow of All-Souls, Principal of New Inn Hall, Vinerian Professor, Deputy High Steward, and Assessor in the Vice-Chancellor's Courts. He died in 1831.
The notes of decisions which he had collected while at the bar and on the bench, and which he had himself prepared for the press, were published after his death, in two volumes folio, agreeably to a direction in his will. They seem to be only such as he had selected out of many from his rough notes, either as being of a more interesting nature, or as containing some essential point of law or practice, or perhaps such only (particularly for the first few years) as he had taken the most accurate notes of. They were published under the superintendence of his executor and brother-in-law, James Clitherow, Esq., prefaced by a sketch of his life, from which the facts contained in this memoir have been principally taken.
“Having now given,” says Mr. Clitherow, "a faithful, and, it is hoped, not too prolix, a detail of the life of this great man, from his cradle to his grave, it will be expected that it should be followed by the outlines at least of his character. A hard task for the pen of a friend! To do justice to the merits of such a character, without incurring the imputation of flattery, is as difficult as to touch on its imperfections (and such the most perfect human characters have) with truth and delicacy.
“In his public line of life he approved himself an able, upright, impartial judge, perfectly acquainted with the laws of his country and making them the invariable rule of his conduct. As a senator, he was averse to party violence and moderate in his sentiments. Not only in Parliament, but at all times and on all occasions, he was a firm supporter of the true principles of our happy Constitution in Church and State,-on the real merits of which few men were so well qualified to decide. He was ever an active and judicious promoter of whatever he thought useful or advantageous to the public in general, or to any particular society or neighbourhood he was connected with; and, having not only a sound judgment, but the clearest ideas and the most analytical head that any man perhaps was ever blessed with, these qualifications, joined to an unremitting perseverance in pursuing whatever he thought right, enabled him to carry many beneficial plans into execution, which probably would have failed if they had been attempted by other men.
“He was a believer in the great truths of Christianity from a thorough investigation of its evidence. Attached to the Church of England from conviction of its excellence, his principles were those of its genuine members, -enlarged and tolerant. His religion was pure and unaffected, and his attendance on its public duties regular, and those duties always performed with seriousness and devotion.
“His professional abilities need not be dwelt upon. They will be universaily acknowledged and admired as long as his works shall be read, or, in other
words, as long as the municipal laws of this country shall rem..in an object o! study and practice. And, though his works will only hold forth to futuro generations his knowledge of the law and his talents as a writer, there was hardly any branch of literature he was unacquainted with. He ever employed much time in reading; and whatever he had read and once digested he never forgot.
"He was an excellent manager of his time; and though so much of it was spent in an application to books and the employment of his pen, yet this was done without the parade or ostentation of being a hard student. It was observed of him, during his residence at college, that his studies never appeared to break in upon the common business of life or the innocent amusements of society,--for the latter of which few men were better calculated, being possessed of the happy faculty of making his own company agreeable and instructive, whilst he enjoyed without reserve the society of others.
“Melancthon himself could not have been more rigid in observing the hour and minute of an appointment. During the years in which he read his lectures at Oxford, it could not be remembered that he had ever kept his audience waiting for him even for a few minutes. As he valued his own time, he was extremely careful not to be instrumental in squandering or trifling away that of others, who he hoped might have as much regard for theirs as he had for his. Indeed, punctuality was in his opinion so much a virtue that he could not bring himself to think perfectly well of any who were notoriously defective in it.
“The virtues of his private character, less conspicuous in their nature and consequently less generally known, endeared him to those he was more intimately connected with and who saw him in the more retired scenes of life. He
was, notwithstanding his contracted brow, (owing in a great measure to his being very near-sighted,) a cheerful, agreeable, and facetious companion. He was a faithful friend, an affectionate husband and parent, and a charitable benefactor to the poor,-possessed of generosity without affectation, bounded by prudence and economy. The constant accurate knowledge he had of his income and expenses (the consequence of uncommon regularity in his accounts) enabled him to avoid the opposite extremes of meanness and profusion.
“Being himself strict in the exercise of every public and private duty, he expected the same attention to both in others, and, when disappointed in his expectation, was apt to animadvert with some degree of severity on those who, in his estimate of duty, seemed to deserve it. This rigid sense of obligation, added to a certain irritability of temper derived from nature and increased in his latter years by a strong nervous affection, together with his countenance and figure, conveyed an idea of sternness, which occasioned the heavy but unmerited imputation, among those who did not know him, of ill nature; but he had a heart as benevolent and as feeling as man ever possessed.
“A natural reserve and diffidence, which accompanied him from his earliest youth, and which he could never shake off, appeared to a casual observer
though it was only appearance, like pride,-- especially after he became a judge, when he thought it his duty to keep strictly up to forms, (which, as he was wont to observe, are now too much laid aside,) and not to lessen the respect due to the dignity and gravity of his office by any outward levity of behaviour.
“In short, it may be said of him as the noble historian (Lord Clarendon) Baid of Mr. Selden: 'If he had some infirmities with other men, they were weighed down with wonderful and prodigious abilities and excellencies in the other scale.'
Such is the testimony of a friend and kinsman to the character of Sir William Blackstone. Partial, no doubt, in some respects; but on the whole it bears on its face the marks of an honest effort to tell the truth,not to conceal what appeared to be unlovely. We may accept it with the more confidence as truthful and reliable. “There may have been,” concludes Mr. Welsby, (Lives of Eminent English Judges,) "more shining characters, of whom we read with deeper interest; but there have been few men more useful in their sphere, few whose example we can contemplate more profitably, few who better realized the wish so happily expressed by himself:
“Untainted by the guilty bribe,
Of the Commentaries as an Institute of Legal Education, very different opinions have been expressed; but, with one or two exceptions, there is a concurrent admiration of their style and method. When the illustrious contemporary of Blackstone-Lord Mansfield—was asked to point out the books proper for the perusal of a student of the law, that great man bore this emphatic testimony to their value:-"Till of late I could never with any satisfaction co myself answer that question; but since the publication of Mr. Blackstone's Commentaries I can never be at a loss. There your son will find analytical reasoning, diffused in a pleasing and perspicuous style. There he may imbibe imperceptibly the first principles on which our excellent laws are founded; and there he may become acquainted with an uncouth crabbed author, Coke upon Littleton, who has disappointed many a tyro, but who cannot fail to please in a modern dress.” One of his most stern and unrelenting critics, --Jeremy Bentham,-himself a jurist, and fundamentally opposed to Blackstone in his general views and principles of government, thus speaks of the style in which the Commentaries were written :-"He it is who first of all institutional writers has taught jurisprudence to speak the language of the scholar and the gentleman, put a polish upon that rugged science, cleansed her from the dust and cobwebs of the office, and, if he has not enriched her with that precision which is drawn only from the sterling treasury of the sciences, has decked her out to advantage from the toilet of classic erudition, enlivened her with metaphors and allusions, and sent her abroad in some
measure to instruct, and in still greater measure to entertain, the most miscel. laneous and even the most fastidicus societies. The merit to which, as much perhaps as to any, this work stands indebted, is the enchanting harmony of its numbers.” “It is easy," says Mr. Justice Coleridge, “to point out their faults; and their general merits of lucid order, sound and clear exposition, and a style almost faultless in its kind, are also easily perceived and universally acknow ledged; but it requires perhaps the study necessarily imposed upon an editor to understand fully the whole extent of praise to which the author is entitled: his materials should be seen in their crude and scattered state; the contreversies examined, of which the result only is shortly given; what he has rejected, what he has forborne to say, should be known before his learning, judgment, taste, and, above all, his total want of self-display, can be justly appreciated.” Lord Avonmore has said, “He it was who first gave to the law the air of a science. He found it a skeleton, and clothed it with life, colour, and complexion: he embraced the cold statue, and by his touch it grew into youth, health, and beauty.” Sir William Jones, one of the most accomplished scholars the legal profession can boast of having produced, and an ornament not to that profession alone, but to human nature, gives his opinion in these words: -"His Commentaries are the most correct and beautiful outline that ever was exhibited of any human science; but they alone will no more form a lawyer than a general map of the world, how accurately and elegantly soever it may be delineated, will make a geographer. If, indeed, all the titles which he professed only to sketch in elementary discourses were filled up with exactness and perspicuity, Englishmen might hope at length to possess a digest of their laws which would leave but little room for controversy except in cases depending upon their particular circumstances,-a work which every lover of humanity and peace must anxiously wish to see accomplished.”
To these many similar authorities might be added; but we may be allowed to subjoin the testimony of the distinguished American Commentator Chancellor Kent:"He [Blackstone) is justly placed at the head of all the modern writers who treat of the general elementary principles of law. By the excellence of his arrangement, the variety of his learning, the justness of his taste, and the purity and elegance of his style, he communicated to those subjects, which were harsh and forbidding in the pages of Coke, the attraction of a liberal science and the embellishments of polite literature. The second and third volumes of the Commentaries are to be thoroughly studied and accurately understood. What is obsolete is necessary to illustrate that which remains in use; and the greater part of the matter in these volumes is law at this day and on this side of the Atlantic."
In opposition to this stand Mr. Ritso and Mr. Austin, the former in his curious and useful Introduction to the Study of Coke upon Littleton, and the latter in his Outlines of Lectures on the Province of Jurisprudence. They deuy to Sir William Blackstone all merit as an institutional writer, and even condemn his style, as unfitted to the subject and meretricious. His manner, pays Mr. Austin, "is not the manner of those classical Roman jurists, who are
always models of expression, though their meaning be never so faulty. It differs from their unaffected, yet apt and nervous, style, as the tawdry and flimsy dress of a miläner's doll from the graceful and imposing nakedness of a Grecian statue.” Mr. Ritso is an idolater of Lord Coke, and unwilling that any book should share in the honours of the Institutes, much less displace it as a first book in the hands of the professional student. Mr. Austin is an enthusiastic Benthamite. His associations have been altogether with codes and systems. What other arrangement he would have made of the Common Law of England than that followed by Blackstone and Hale can only be conjectured; but the probability is that it would not have been adapted to the science as it practically existed, and would have been inconvenient because artificial. The Common Law is not a strait canal cut by the art of civil engineers, but a mighty river, its head lost in the sands of antiquity, which has sought and made its own channel, and that the most natural and the best, though occasionally requiring to be improved by legislative dams and embankments.
It is not difficult to arrive at a just conclusion between thesu conflicting opinions. Blackstone is not an authority in the law in the same sense in which Littleton or his commentator Lord Coke is. He has fallen into some errors and inaccuracies,-not, however, so many nor so important that the student ought to have his confidence in it as an Institute at all impaired. In fact, these errors and inaccuracies have been for the most part pointed out and corrected in the modern editions. There is certainly truth in the charge brought against Blackstone of overweening admiration of the British Constitution; but that is not likely to mislead an American student. We can sympathize with his panegyric of the free spirit and general justice of the Common Law. We claim it as our birthright and boast of it as the substratum of our own jurisprudence. As an elementary book, however, it may be enough to say that the whole body of American lawyers and advocates, with very few exceptions, since the Revolution, have drawn their first lessons in jurisprudence from the pages of Blackstone's Commentaries; and no more modern work has succeeded as yet in superseding it.