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Professor of Common Law
Sir William Blackstone

[photo of plaque]Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), Professor of Common Law, Oxford University, was an eminent, prolific English authority on common law. The common law is part of the underlying law used in England and the United States.

The common law derives from a long line of rights developed over centuries on behalf of the people. A famous example is the Magna Charta (1215) under King John. These rights include what was referenced by our own U.S. "Bill of Rights."

Blackstone wrote prolifically on the laws on the England. His Commentaries were well received, went through a number of editions, and are still cited in modern legal references such as Black's Law Dictionary. Here is an overview of some editions:

    Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1st ed (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765)

    Commentaries on the Laws of England, 3rd ed (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1768)

    Commentaries on the Laws of England: in Four Books, 4th ed (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1770)

When cited, the book is so authoritative that references written for lawyers can be abbreviated with the volume, title abbreviation, and page: example, 1 Bl Comm 302. For lay readers, of course, it is helpful to be longer. An example of the latter is at our legal definitions site (the reference to Blackstone's Commentaries).

A Brief Excerpt
Reprint of an 1803 Book on Blackstone and U.S. Constitution
An About.com Analysis of Blackstone's Impact
His Methods Cited In Tiffany's Anti-Slavery Book

Other Significant U.S. Historical Materials

Civil law is given, not to create rights, but to protect already pre-existing natural rights, i.e., pre-constitutional rights. Wherefore, says Blackstone, the "primary object of law is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals." Vol. I, page 89. Absolute rights are those "such as would belong to man in a state of nature, and which EVERY MAN is entitled to enjoy, whether in society or out of society." These natural rights include "life and liberty, and which no human legislature may abridge or destroy, unless the OWNER himself shall commit some act that amounts to a forfeiture."

Civil law or government, may never contravene or oppose the moral law, or law of revelation.

  • "The province of human government is to protect—not to destroy man's natural rights, but more perfectly secure them to him," says Rev. John G. Fee, Sinfulness of Slaveholding (1851), p 6.

  • "Upon the law of Nature and Revelation all human laws depend."

  • "No human laws should be suffered to contradict these."

  • "Nay, if any human laws should allow, or enjoin us to commit a violation of the revealed law, we are bound to transgress that human law, or else we must offend both natural and revealed law."—Vol. I. pp. 28, 29. (Cited by Rev. John G. Fee, Anti-Slavery Manual (1851), pp 70-72.)

  • "Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience."—John Locke, 1690.

  • Government aiding and abetting private individuals in violating a right is unconstitutional, i.e., when “. . . States have made available to [private] individuals the full coercive power of government to deny” other individuals their rights.—Shelley v Kraemer, McGhee v Sipes, 334 US 1, 19; 68 S Ct 836; 92 L Ed 1161 (1948) (Details).

    “The very act [of enslaving] was a declaration of war upon human [kind].”—Rev. Beriah Green, The Chattel Principle (1839), p 18.

    "That the aggressor, who puts himself into the state of war with another, and unjustly invades another man's right, can, by such an unjust war, never come to have a right over the conquered, will be easily agreed by all men, who will not think that robbers and pirates have a right of empire over whom so ever they have force enough to master, or that men are bound by promises which unlawful force extorts from them. Should a robber break into my house, and, with a dagger at my throat, make me seal deeds to convey my estate to him, would this give him any title? Just such a title by his sword has an unjust conqueror who forces me into submission. The injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a crown or some petty villain. The title of the offender and the number of his followers make no difference in the offence, unless it be to aggravate it. The only difference is, great robbers punish little ones to keep them in their obedience; but the great ones are rewarded with laurels and triumphs, because they are too big for the weak hands of justice in this world, and have the power in their own possession which should punish offenders."--John Locke (1632-1704), The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690).

  • Indeed, “denial of [fundamental rights] would, upon principles of public law, be just cause of war.”—Mitchell v Wells, 37 Miss 235, 282 (1859) (dissent by J. Handy).

    “This [allowing rights denial via slavery, unconstitutional detentions] was allowing a state of war de jure in the body politic, which could not be prevented from becoming a war de facto to the destruction of the commonwealth [society].”—Edward C. Rogers, Slavery Illegality (1855), p 9. (See Bible anti-war principles).

    “Quod ab initio non valet in tractu temporis non convalescet. That which is bad in its commencement improves not by lapse of time. Quod initio non valet, tractu temporis non valet. A thing void in the beginning does not become valid by lapse of time.”—Black's Law Dictionary (5th ed, 1979), pp 1126-1127.

    Clearly “a forced system of labour endangers the peace.”—Frederick Douglass, Unconstitutionality of Slavery (London: William Tweedie, Pub, 1860), p 11.

    “The moral law, like every other law, comes not to confer rights, but to protect rights already existing. It presupposes . . . certain rights [already exist] to be guarded, not given . . . .”—Rev. John G. Fee, Sinfulness of Slavery (1851), p 11.

  • These are protective-of-our-rights concepts.

    However, politicians often do not know or respect our rights, so, they, like the proverbial bull in the china shop, violate them. See L. Spooner, Unconstitutionality of Slavery (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1845), p 62.

    The Bill of Rights is written on the presumption that politicians WILL regularly violate peoples' rights, so much so, and so often, as to warrant a prohibition of same, not in some minor proviso, but in the fundamental law itself.

    Since the creation of Legislatures and Congress, our common law rights have in many cases been seriously undermined. Politicians are often uneducated or demagogic, so have a record of willingingness to destroy people's rights either out of ignorance, personal corruption, or malice. An early example is from the slavery era.

    Nowadays, the "right to fresh and pure air" is often undermined by legislators and Congress. They (with exceptions such as 1897 Iowa) often refuse to institutionalize protections for it.