William Blackstone Is The Most Powerful Person You’ve Never Heard Of

The 10th Justice was a radical monarchist who despised the Colonists and American Independence. Why does the Supreme Court give this guy 👇 a vote?

I’ve filled this article with every (uncopyrightable/public domain) depiction of William Blackstone I was able to find. You’re welcome.

Blackstone & His Book

Blackstone, born in 1723, was a man. He was also “stiff, stuffy, and pompous from childhood.” And he was a failure. He was a middling lawyer, thwarted in his academic aspirations and, early on, deemed unfit for professorship. As a judge, “his rulings . . . were set aside more frequently than those of any other.”

Blackstone & The Founders

Even if we accept that the Founders were familiar with the Commentaries — that familiarity should not be confused with acceptance. It would be like suggesting that Ayn Rand was a Marxist because she owned a copy of The Communist Manifesto. Blackstone, after all, was a rabid Tory and no friend to the Founders’ cause.

Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s problem with Blackstone began as early as 1776. After the Revolution, Jefferson demanded that the then-existing Virginia laws be repealed and “adapted to our republican form of government.” A compatriot suggested that they adopt Blackstone and purge “what was inapplicable, or unsuitable to us.” But Jefferson fundamentally disagreed because the end product would retain the “same chaos of law-lore from which we wished to be emancipated.”

St. George Tucker.

By the time St. George Tucker, a Revolutionary War veteran and “the first modern American law professor,” received a letter from Jefferson in 1793, he was already annotating Blackstone for Americans. Jefferson had just met with Tucker’s son-in-law who told him that he had only yet read Blackstone. Jefferson told him at once to put down Blackstone and read Coke, such that “what remains of the law will be mere amusement.”

James Wilson.

James Wilson, who let’s be honest, you’ve probably not thought about much lately or ever, was a giant; he needs a Broadway musical of his own. He was one of the few Founders who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and he had more of an effect on the latter than anyone but James Madison (the guy who wrote the thing). He also called Blackstone a “great supporter” of “systematic despotism.” (🔥.)

Blackstone & Freedom Of The Press

While it’s certainly true that the Founders had their doubts about Blackstone generally, it’s worth asking whether those reservations extended to his view of freedom of the press. Famously, Blackstone, in his Commentaries, maintained that “the liberty of the press . . . consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications.” Nothing more.

Thomas Jefferson.

Take first Jefferson’s transatlantic input on the Bill of Rights. Madison had, in June 1789, proposed to the House a list of amendments that would eventually become the Bill of Rights. One proposed by Madison provided that, “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments.”

St. George Tucker

Consistent with these attacks on the Sedition Act, which again would have given Blackstone no heartburn, Tucker, in his annotations to the Commentaries, wrote that the Act “excited more apprehension, and greater indignation in many parts of the U. States . . . than any other measure of the federal government.” It was, he said, “supposed by many to amount to a most flagrant violation of the constitution.”

James Wilson.

In debates over the proposed constitution in the Pennsylvania convention, James Wilson said, “I presume it was not in the view of the honorable gentleman to say there is no such thing as a libel, or that the writers of such ought not to be punished. The idea of the liberty of the press is not carried so far as this in any country. What is meant by the liberty of the press is, that there should be no antecedent restraint upon it.”

Blackstone, In The End

Blackstone hated the Colonists and the cause of independence. He hated republican sentiment. He rejected the idea that sovereignty resided, first, in the People. Why the Supreme Court treats him as the final arbiter of questions of history more than 200 years later defies understanding.

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Matthew Schafer

Media Lawyer. Adjunct Professor/Mass Media Law at Fordham University School of Law. Twitter @MatthewSchafer