Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) was based on a course of undergraduate lectures that Blackstone delivered at Oxford University. Intended for future members of England’s ruling class, it was the first truly comprehensive synopsis of the common law and its underlying principles. Attractively written, it was soon adopted by aspiring lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Blackstone’s Commentaries was especially popular in America. Members of the legal elite cited its origins to promote the establishment of law schools. Students used it for self-guided study or background reading. Instructors used it as a syllabus. In a letter to a prospective Yale law student dated Dec. 9, 1831, for example, Daggett says that “Blackstones Com. are the outlines & I endeavor to fill up certain of his topics such as mortgages, evidence, pleadings, contracts, equity &c. &c.”
Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 1 (Portland [Maine]: Thomas B. Wait, & Co., 1807). Armorial bookplate, “Doggett Daggett,” which is the family of Yale law professor David Daggett. William Blackstone Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.
Notebook of Charles Adams (1795-1821) from lectures of Tapping Reeve and James Gould at the Litchfield Law School, June-Aug. 1812. Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.
The Connecticut law schools were devoted almost exclusively to private law, then the purview of elite lawyers, which is covered in the first three volumes. The first citation in the right margin, “1 B_ 426”, is to Blackstone’s Commentaries, volume 1, page 426.
– Notes by Michael von der Linn
“From Litchfield to Yale: Law Schools in Connecticut, 1782-1843,” curated by Michael von der Linn and Michael Widener, is on display through May 30, 2013, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.