Sir William Blackstone | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

Sir William Blackstone, an English legal scholar, authored the influential “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” shaping US criminal law.

Sir William Blackstone was an English legal scholar who had a significant impact on the world of law. Born in 1723, he became well-known for his impressive four-volume set of law books titled Commentaries on the Laws of England. These books were incredibly important and played a major role in shaping the development of criminal law in the United States.

Before we dive into the influence of Blackstone’s work, let’s learn a bit more about the man himself. Sir William Blackstone was born in London and attended Oxford University, where he later became a professor. He was known for his eloquent speaking style and his ability to make complex legal concepts easy to understand. This talent for communication would later prove invaluable when he wrote his famous Commentaries.

Now, let’s talk about the Commentaries on the Laws of England. The four-volume set, published between 1765 and 1769, provided a comprehensive guide to the laws of England during that time. The books covered a wide range of topics, from the rights of individuals to the workings of the court system, and they were written in a way that made them accessible to both legal professionals and the general public.

One of the key features of the Commentaries was Blackstone’s approach to organizing and presenting the law. Rather than just listing legal rules, he aimed to explain the underlying principles and historical context behind them. This approach made the law more understandable and relatable, which was a big part of why the Commentaries became so popular and influential.

The impact of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the development of criminal law in the United States cannot be overstated. At the time the United States was forming its own legal system, the Commentaries were widely read and admired by many of the nation’s founding fathers. In fact, the books were so popular that they became the most frequently cited source of legal authority in American courts during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

There are several reasons why Blackstone’s Commentaries had such a major influence on the development of criminal law in the United States. First, the books provided a clear and comprehensive overview of English common law, which was the basis for much of the early American legal system. By studying the Commentaries, American lawyers and judges were able to learn about the key principles and rules that would help shape their own country’s laws.

Second, Blackstone’s approach to explaining the law in a way that was easy to understand and accessible to a wide audience made his work particularly appealing to the founding fathers, who wanted to create a legal system that was fair and transparent. By adopting many of the ideas and principles found in the Commentaries, they were able to develop a criminal law system that was grounded in the principles of justice and fairness.

Lastly, Blackstone’s focus on the rights of individuals and the importance of protecting those rights had a significant impact on the development of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Many of the ideas and principles found in these foundational documents can be traced back to Blackstone’s Commentaries.

For example, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, is heavily influenced by Blackstone’s writings. He believed that a person’s home should be a sanctuary, free from government intrusion, and this idea was later enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Another example can be found in the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. This concept was also rooted in Blackstone’s work, as he believed that individuals accused of crimes should be treated fairly and given the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law.

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Last Modified: 05/05/2023

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