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The toil by day, the lamp by night,
“Thus, though my noon of life be past,
The ease exhibited in these lines betrays a pen accustomed to versification; and a volume of juvenile pieces which Mr. Blackstone had collected, but which were never published, shows, that in his earlier years he devoted no inconsiderable portion of his leisure hours to poetical compositions. An early taste for literature has too often misled the student from the ruder and more rugged paths of his profession; but the taste and genius of Blackstone rendered his literary acquirements subservient to his professional success.
In November, 1743, Mr. Blackstone was elected into the society of All-Souls' College, and in the following year he was admitted actual fellow and spoke the anniversary speech in commemoration of the founder, Archbishop Chichele. From this period he divided his time between Oxford and the Temple, where he had taken chambers with the view of attending the courts. His academical and professional studies were there pursued concurrently. On the 12th of June, 1745, he commenced bachelor of civil law, and on the 28th of November, 1746, he was called to the bar.
For several years Mr. Blackstone made little progress in his profession. Without those powerful connections upon which early success must necessarily depend, and without the ad
vantages which volubility and confidence confer, he possessed no means of forcing himself into notice. He was therefore induced to spend a considerable portion of his time at Oxford, where, having been elected bursar, he employed himself in exploring and arranging the muniments of his college, and in reforming the method of keeping the accounts, a subject which he illustrated by a dissertation now preserved in the archives of the college. He also had the merit of hastening the completion of the Codrington library, which was arranged under his directions. For these services he was rewarded with the appointment of steward of the college manors. On the 26th of April, 1750, he commenced doctor of civil law.
A dispute which arose in All-Souls' College, with regard to the persons who were to be considered as next of kin to the founder, gave rise to Mr. Blackstone's first professional publication. This was the “Essay on collateral Consanquinity," which appeared in 1750, and which was afterward printed in the collection of his law tracts. It excited considerable attention, and when, several years afterward, the Archbishop of Canterbury as visitor, formed a new regulation, he appointed Mr. Justice Blackstone his common law assessor.
The very inconsiderable encouragement which Mr. Blackstone had received in the practice of his profession in London, led him in the year 1753, to the resolution of retiring to his fellowship, and of practising at Oxford as a provincial counsel. At the same time he formed the design of delivering a course of private lectures on the laws of England, which was very numerously and respectably attended. Of these lectures he published an analysis in 1756.
The zeal which he had always displayed in forwarding the interests of his college, and of the university in general, led to various honorable appointments. In the year 1757, he became one of the delegates of the Clarendon press, and applied himself successfully to the reformation of various abuses connected with that institution. He was also elected one of the visitors of Mr. Michel's foundation in Queen's CoHege, where he was equally bappy in his efforts to terminate the disputes which had previously existed with regard to this donation.
In the year 1754, he was engaged as counsel in the county election, where a question, arising on the right of certain copyholders to vote, was the origin of his tract published a few years afterward, under the title of “Considerations on Copyholders.”
In the year 1756, Mr. Viner, the laborious compiler of the most complete abridgment of the English law that has ever appeared, died, and bequeathed to the university of Oxford the whole profits of his voluminous compilation, for the purpose of promoting the study of the common law of England. This munificent benefaction was employed in the first instance in the institution of a professorship of English law, to which a stipend of two hundred pounds per annum was annexed. The duty assigned to the professor was to deliver one solemn public lecture on the laws of England in every academical term, and also by himself or his deputy to read yearly a complete course of lectures on the same subject, consisting of sixty lectures at the least. On the 20th of October, 1758, Mr. Blackstone was unanimously elected the first Vinerian professor; and on the 25th of the same month he read his introductory lecture, the method, elegance, and learning of which attracted the admiration of every one who heard it. This excellent discourse was afterward prefixed to the first volume of the Commentaries.
The reputation which the first course of the Vinerian lectures obtained was such, that the nobleman who superintended the education of the young Prince, requested Mr. Blackstone to read them to his royal highness; an honor which was respectfully declined by the new professor in consequence of the pressure of his engagements at the university. Copies of the lectures were, however, presented to the Prince, a service for which Mr. Blackstone received a munificent acknowledgment.
The distinction which Mr. Blackstone had acquired by his lectures induced him in the year 1759, to return to London, where he resumed his practice, visiting Oxford at stated periods only, for the delivery of his lectures. The coif was pressed upon him by Lord Chief-Justice Willes and Mr. Justice Bathurst; but he thought proper to decline the honor. In the
same year he gave to the world a magnificent edition of Magna Charta and the Charter of the Forest, which issued from the Clarendon press. About this time he also published a small tract on the law of descents in fee simple.
Hitherto, Mr. Blackstone appears to have taken no part whatever in the political discussions of the day; but a dissolution of parliament having taken place, he was returned in 1761 as one of the representatives of Hindon, in Wiltshire. Soon afterward he received a patent of precedence, having declined the office of chief-justice of the common pleas in Ireland.
The rank thus conferred upon him, and the celebrity which he had acquired as a writer, operated very favorably on the professional views of Mr. Blackstone. His practice having considerably increased, he married Sarah, the eldest surviving daughter of James Clitherow, of Boston House, in the county of Middlesex, by whom he had a family of nine children. His fellowship having been vacated by his marriage, he was, in July, 1761, appointed principal of New Inn Hall by the Earl of Westmoreland, at that time chancellor of the university.
In the year 1762, he collected his tracts on legal subjects, and published them in two volumes 8vo.; and in the course of the following year, on the establishment of the Queen's household, he received the appointment of solicitor-general to her majesty, and was elected a bencher of the Middle Temple.
In the year 1765, appeared the first volume of the celebrated Commentaries on the Laws of England. The reception of the Commentaries, in regard to the style in which they were written, is all that could have been desired; but in matter they did not escape criticism from the politicians of the day.
In the year 1766, Mr. Blackstone resigned the Vinerian professorship, and the place of principal of New Inn Hall, in consequence of his London business interfering with his duties at the university.
Having been returned for Westbury in Wiltshire, in the parliament of 1768, he took a part in the debates which arose relative to the election of Mr. Wilkes.
Those professional honors to which the talents and acquirements of Mr. Blackstone gave him so just a claim were now
opened to him; and on the resignation of Mr. Dunning in 1770, the vacant place of solicitor-general was offered to him. The parliamentary duties incident to this office were probably the ground on which it was declined by Mr. Blackstone. Of a sensitive and retiring disposition, he had been disgusted with the contests into which his parliamentary duties had led him, and he looked anxiously for the shelter from political life which the bench afforded. Very shortly after his refusal of the post of solicitor-general, Mr. Justice Clive, one of the judges of the common pleas, resigned his seat, which was immediately tendered to Mr. Blackstone. The patent for his appointment was about to pass, when Mr. Justice Yates expressed an earnest wish to change his court. In consequence, Mr. Blackstone was, in Hilary term, 1770, appointed to the seat vacated by Sir Joseph Yates in the king's bench. In the ensuing Trinity term, however, on the death of Mr. Justice Yates, he accepted the place originally designed for him in the court of common pleas.
In the latter part of his life, Sir Wm. Blackstone devoted much of his time, in conjunction with Mr. Howard and Mr. Eden, to the subject of prison discipline—a subject with which not merely the welfare of the individuals wḥo are the objects of that discipline, but the virtue and happiness of society at large, are intimately connected. In common with many reflecting men of his day, Sir William Blackstone had remarked the inefficacy of the system which restores prisoners to society, on the expiration of their punishment, more complete adepts in their criminal arts than when they entered the walls of their gaol, and resolutely bent to revenge upon the community the cruelty and harshness they have sustained at its hands. If a scheme had been formed for the propagation of vice, for initiating the uninstructed in its mysteries, and for carrying to their full perfection the talonts of the more experienced criminals, no schools could have been instituted better adapted to such ends, than our own prisons toward the middle of the last century. Idleness, drunkenness, debauchery of all kinds, filthiness beyond credibility, an unrestrained communication between the oldest and the youngest offenders, were the dis