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Was Blackstone a Jurisprudence Theorist?

Blackstone is sometimes referred to as part of the Natural Law tradition. Professor Eric Claeys explains that Blackstone was first and foremost a lawyer, not a jurisprudence scholar. He did rely on Natural Law principles in his work on the laws of England and the common law, but Blackstone didn’t try to give philosophical explanations for these principles. He didn’t think such an explanation was necessary. Only later when Utilitarianism developed were these principles questioned by legal scholars. https://youtube.com/watch?v=PDckVNstIdE


Blackstone was first and foremost a lawyer, and only second a theorist. He subscribed to principles of Natural Law, but he was more interested in what the law was in England, and so he didn't treat systematically a lot of tougher philosophical questions about what law is and what law's limits are as an analytical matter. Blackstone deserves a lot of respect because he tried to restate basic principles of English law in a way that was more systematic than any lawyer in the English tradition had done to that point. Blackstone's discussion of law is hard to follow or, or hard to understand through, and I think that comes back to the fact that Blackstone was doing a few different things in his commentaries. The most important practical function of the commentaries was to provide a resource to English lawyers in the late 18th century about what the law was. The common law was spread out over a lot of different fields, and there weren't that many treatises that were trying to take a 30,000 foot view of the law. Blackstone was also trying to reconcile the common law in all the grubby details of it with the Natural Law tradition. Blackstone didn't know a lot of the theorists in that tradition, he wasn't as sophisticated a philosopher as he was a lawyer. So Blackstone relied on principles of Natural Law, and added them to his commentaries, but he didn't treat the Natural Law issues and philosophy in his commentaries as systematically as a really careful theologian or philosopher would have. Blackstone was a lawyer. He focused primarily on expounding on what the law of England was. He took for granted that principles of law were justified by natural law. He assumed that all his readers agreed. This might not have been a weakness of Blackstone in the 1770s when he wrote his commentaries, but things were changing in England very rapidly among the elite, among intellectuals in England. Natural Law was falling out of fashion. Academics were coming to the fore. Utilitarian theorists were coming to the fore, and these utilitarians were skeptical of the entire Natural Law tradition, and Utilitarians would expect somebody to be able to defend natural law against the kinds of objections that Utilitarians would raise. Blackstone was not interested in defending Natural Law on philosophical grounds systematically; he didn't anticipate any of the objections that were gonna come in the next 30 years. Blackstone's still read for two main reasons. Blackstone, as a lawyer, he did more than anybody else to bring together all the messy details of English common law and put it in one unified place. He wrote four volumes on English law; those went deep onto some odd subjects and skimped on some other subjects, but still they covered basic rights to person, property, what we now know as the basic torts and the basic crimes, and it was a good starting point to have a system of law in one place. Also, Blackstone restated the common sense of a lot of Englishmen who understood that law is an institution securing basic, absolute rights, consistent with the Natural Law.

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