Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bernstein reviews Prest on Blackstone

R. B. Bernstein, New York Law School, reviews WILLIAM BLACKSTONE: LAW AND LETTERS IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, by Wilfrid Prest (Oxford University Press, 2008), and BLACKSTONE AND HIS COMMENTARIES: BIOGRAPHY, LAW, HISTORY, edited by Wilfrid Prest (Hart Publishing, 2009) for the Law and Politics Book Review.  Bernstein begins:
Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) is best known as author of the COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND. The COMMENTARIES became a classic of legal literature virtually on publication and remain so to this day; indeed, they rival Edward Gibbon’s HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE as the most influential work of scholarship in English produced during the Age of Enlightenment.

By contrast with the DECLINE AND FALL, which is pervaded by Gibbon’s personality as well as his scholarship, the COMMENTARIES have long overshadowed their author. Sadly, the conventional modern understanding of Blackstone as a thinker and historical figure owes far more to his foes than to his own writings. Caricatures penned by such of his intellectual foes as Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Jefferson skewer Blackstone as a complacent apologist for the established order (with all its failings intact) and as a failed barrister who embodies the old quip, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Even Blackstone’s would-be eulogist, his brother-in-law James Clitherow, did not help matters by swathing him in conventional pieties and blandly and tersely sketching his antecedents, character, and personality. In his only passages casting light on Blackstone’s character, Clitherow reluctantly acknowledged Blackstone’s short temper and his forbidding manner, then sought to explain these traits away....
Few previous biographers chronicled Blackstone’s life, owing principally to the lack of primary sources. There is no great cache of Blackstone diaries, correspondence, or private papers from which to construct a biography. Indeed, it is a cliché that Blackstone was either unknowable or (at best) a dull man whose life is best approached through his outstanding achievement. For generations scholars concluded that a true biography of Blackstone – one setting his life and thought in the historical, social, legal, literary, and cultural contexts that shaped him and his work – would be impossible. And yet, thanks to the tireless labor, skillful historical detective work, and literary craftsmanship of Wilfred Prest, we now have that book.

A professor emeritus of history and law at the University of Adelaide, Prest is best known for his studies of English history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, stressing the history of law and the legal profession; this expertise undergirds his decision to write a life of Blackstone. William Blackstone: LAW AND LETTERS IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY presents a persuasive, nuanced portrait of its subject grounded on admirably thorough research. Prest has examined virtually every surviving scrap of paper having to do with Blackstone’s life, professional activities, legal practice, judicial service, and intellectual labors; even more impressive than his industry, he has distilled the fruits of his research in a learned, accessible, and rigorously-argued biography. Prest’s book illuminates not only Blackstone’s life and significance but also the intellectual history of eighteenth-century England, maintaining with justice that we can best understand Blackstone as a distinguished English exemplar of the Age of Enlightenment. As Prest demonstrates, Blackstone’s evolution as a lawyer and jurist exemplified the qualities of thought and creativity associated with the English Enlightenment, with these qualities finding their ultimate expression in the COMMENTARIES.
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