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Blackstone: Commentaries and Burlesque

Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780)

Inspired by the statue of William Blackstone in front of the U.S. District Courthouseourthouse in DC while biking to work, this blog post was intended to introduce the reader to the Law Library’s William Blackstone Collection.  While the Law Library does not have a statue of Blackstone, we do have a very nice portrait.

Blackstone is best known for his Commentaries on the Laws of England, first published between 1765 and 1769 in four volumes.  Our collection contains many English, Irish, and American editions of this title.  The Law Library has other Blackstone publications in addition to the Commentaries, such as his An Analysis of the Laws of England which served as an outline for the former, as well as essays, treatises and various other items.

Why build an extensive collection of Blackstone materials at the Law Library?  This 18th century English professor and jurist was widely read in the colonies and his Commentaries influenced legal education in the young United States.  The first “American” edition was published in 1771-72 and was essentially a reprint of the 4th Oxford edition.  Later editions of the Commentaries include American law in the annotations.

While going through the Commentaries, abridgments, legal tracts, and other items in the collection, what really stood out was an 1887 volume of Gilbert a’Beckett’s Comic Blackstone.  This particular volume was acquired as a gift from the Friends of the Law Library in 1995.

Originally published in 1844, this parody of the Commentaries still elicits chuckles (or groans!) from even the most long-faced legal professional.  From the very start, a’Beckett sets the humorous tone in chapter I on the Rights of Individuals:

Blackstone divides rights into the rights of persons and the rights of things; but the division is not approved, for it has been held that there are no rights of things – but surely boots are things, and there is always a right boot, though the jurists insist that it is only the owner who has a personal right in it. (p. 25-26).

Text aside, the standouts in this revised edition are the illustrations by Harry Furniss.  These color plates really add to the burlesque of a’Beckett’s farce.

Survival of the Fittest Supreme Court of Appeal Husband and Wife Fate of Knight Service Policy and the Law Seat of Justice Fun of the Law Vision of the Future

These books and many more treasures are available in our Rare Book Collection.  Rare book service is available on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and as always, we welcome your inquiries.  For  an appointment or further information, please contact Dr. Meredith Shedd-Driskel, Law Curator, at [email protected]

One Comment

  1. Emily
    December 16, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Fabulous!

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