Rare Books Blog

January 31, 2014

The correspondence of major English judges, lawyers and legal academics is one rich area to explore in the Beinecke’s Taussig Collection of English legal manuscripts. These letters and letter collections offer wonderful insight into the lives and careers of leading English legal figures, and in some cases can form the basis of fuller biographical accounts.

William Blackstone (1723-80) is one of the great figures in English legal history. His correspondence in the Taussig Collection, while not extensive, is a valuable record of an important, transitional moment in his career, and complements the preeminent Blackstone Collection of printed works at the Lillian Goldman Law Library.   

Born into a prosperous merchant family, Blackstone was educated at Pembroke and All Souls College, Oxford, and admitted to the Middle Temple in 1741 to become a barrister. After being called to the Bar, and taking a doctorate in civil law (1750), Blackstone worked in private practice in London, and at Oxford as an administrator, where he set his hand to reform. Although it is unclear when they were first offered, Blackstone also embarked on courses of legal lectures at Oxford, which drew income from fee-paying audiences. In 1758, Blackstone became the first Vinerian Professor of English Law there, a somewhat unhappy tenure until his formal resignation in 1765.  

Fortunately for Blackstone, his growing reputation attracted some noble friends and patrons. With support, he was able to secure a seat in the House of Commons in 1761, while he cast around for other positions and appointments – some modest, others more prestigious – which would furnish income and further his career.

The Blackstone correspondence in the Taussig Collection largely dates to this key period, and shows the jurist – just prior to the publication of his great work, the Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) – entreating friends and jockeying for professional positions. In a letter to his younger patron, Lord Shelburne, Blackstone asks for a position as Justice of Chester (OSB MSS 184, Box 32, #186, December 27, 1761), and he plainly confesses his wish to become an English judge (Box 32, #186, July 29, 1762). In December of 1762, Blackstone enlists Shelburne’s assistance to overturn the nomination of George Perrot for a position in the Exchequer of Pleas, which Blackstone at that moment coveted (Box 32, #189).

Aside from career ambitions, the letters shed fleeting light on English politics and on Blackstone’s administrative plans. In one, Blackstone hints at his ideas for curricular reform at Oxford, remarking that higher education should benefit (largely wealthy, upwardly mobile) laymen, rather than the “monastic” clergy for whom English education had been tailored for centuries (Box 32, #186, December 27, 1761). In another, Blackstone discusses the proposed appointment of an administrator for Oxford University Press, where Blackstone worked significantly for reform (Box 34, #268, November 17, 1764).  For more on Blackstone and the OUP, see Mike Widener’s great recent post.  

Together, the Blackstone letters from the Taussig Collection capture Blackstone in the midst of a dynamic decade, which not only saw the publication of his towering literary achievement, but also the fitful movements of a career in which Blackstone hoped to become a leading English judge.

For more on Blackstone’s life and correspondence, see the excellent book by Wilfrid Prest, William Blackstone: Law and Letters in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2008), and his edition of Blackstone’s letters, The Letters of Sir William Blackstone, 1744-1780 (London, 2006).

– RYAN GREENWOOD, Rare Book Fellow

January 29, 2014

This summer saw the Library’s acquisition of extraordinary printed works on English law from Anthony Taussig, as well as his legal and law-related manuscripts, which were acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. These manuscripts include printed works with significant annotations, and now form part of the Osborn Collection of English Literary and Historical Manuscripts. The Beinecke’s Taussig Collection has ample treasures waiting for students and researchers, from 13th-century manuscripts to notable correspondence of 19th-century English judges and politicians, and works by some of the great English legal writers and lawyers.


An excellent finding aid for the Beinecke’s Taussig Collection is available online through the catalog record in Orbis. The collection is also physically significant, comprising 48.29 linear feet and 73 boxes which contain around 400 manuscript items. Highlights include a late 13th-century manuscript of Bracton’s De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae (“On the Laws and Customs of England”), among other medieval manuscripts; the main archive of the manuscripts and annotated books of Sir Michael Foster, a noted 18th-century justice of King’s Bench; correspondence of William Blackstone, the great 18th-century English jurist, and a great variety of treatises, annotated law books, student notes, pocket diaries, trial notebooks and case reports, all dating from the 13th- through 19th-centuries.


Referring to Taussig’s collection of printed and manuscript materials, the Beinecke’s news release said it well: “Together, these form the world’s most extensive private collection ever assembled for the study of the cultural and intellectual history of law in England.” It is a peerless collection and a boon to students of English legal history.


Before consulting the collection, students and researchers may want to check the great printed guide to the Taussig manuscripts, A Catalogue of the Legal Manuscripts of Anthony Taussig (London: Selden Society, 2007), compiled by the eminent legal historian Sir John H. Baker. The catalogue offers a perfect starting point for further work, particularly since the Beinecke’s collection has maintained the numbers and order of the printed catalogue.


Stay tuned for a few glimpses at items from the Beinecke’s Taussig holdings…


–RYAN GREENWOOD, Rare Book Fellow

Francis Hargrave's Argument in the Case of James Sommersett a Negro (1772)
January 25, 2014

Among all the volumes our library acquired from Anthony Taussig, few hold as much historical significance or research potential as those authored or owned by Granville Sharp (1735-1813), one of the founders of the British abolition movement.

The most notable is the book pictured at left, Sharp’s own copy of Francis Hargrave’s Argument in the case of James Sommersett a Negro, lately determined by the Court of King’s Bench: wherein it is attempted to demonstrate the present unlawfulness of domestic slavery in England (London, 1772). Sommersett v. Stewart (20 State Trials 1 (K.B. 1772)) is one of the landmark cases in the abolition of slavery, with Lord Mansfield ruling that a slave became free when he set foot on English soil. James Somerset had come from Virginia with his master and sought refuge with Sharp after his escape. Sharp himself orchestrated Somerset’s defense. Sharp annotated this copy with extensive notes, some of them tipped in on separate sheets.

For more on the research potential of this outstanding little book, see “Sharp’s Numbers” in Mark Weiner’s Worlds of Law blog, which includes a video interview Mark did with me about the book.

Another of the acquisitions, Sharp’s Representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery or of admitting the least claim of private  property in the persons of men, in England (London, 1769), is considered to be the first British anti-slavery tract.

Several of the titles are products of Granville Sharp’s advocacy for Parliamentary reform and civil rights. These include A declaration of the people’s natural right to a share in the legislature (London, 1775) , where he argued for representation of the American colonies in Parliament, and The legal means of political reformation (7th ed.; London, 1780?), Taussig’s copy inscribed “The gift of the Author”.

Another volume that belonged to Sharp demonstrates his interest in Campbell v. Hall (20 State Trials 239 (K.B. 1774)), an important case involving the application of common law in England’s colonies. The volume contains two pamphlets from the trial, Campbell esq. against Hall esq.: the first argument in this cause upon the special verdict, Hilary-term, 1774 [London?, 1774?] and Lord Mansfield’s speech in giving the judgment of the Court of King’s-bench … in the cause of Campbell against Hall (London, 1775). Sharp wrote extensive notes in the margins, as shown below, and on tipped-in sheets. Modern scholars have looked to Campbell v. Hall on the question of whether Lord Mansfield’s decision in the Somerset case had any relevance for slavery the colonies; see George Van Cleve, “Somerset’s Case and Its Antecedents in Imperial Perspective,” 24 Law & History Review 601 (2006) and the accompanying commentaries. Was Sharp was asking the same question? Come see for yourself; there’s a good research paper or article lurking here.

— MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Campbell esq. against Hall esq.: the first argument in this cause upon the special verdict, Hilary-term, 1774 [London?, 1774?], showing Granville Sharp’s handwritten notes.


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