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.

January 15, 2014

One of the Library’s notable Taussig acquisitions is the first work devoted to the laws and rights of women in English law, and the only edition of that work. Published anonymously in 1632, The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights, or, The Lawes Provision for Woemen has sometimes—though inconclusively—been attributed to Sir John Doddridge (1555-1628), the Renaissance jurist, antiquarian and Justice of the King’s Bench. The editor of the work, signed as T.E. and sometimes associated with a “Thomas Edgar,” pleads ignorance about the identity of the original compiler, but notes that he has added cases and corrected mistakes. The role of T.E. in organizing the work may have been substantial, yet its genesis remains something of a puzzle.

Whatever the circumstances leading to publication, the writer(s) justified their work with a literary flair usually absent from law books.  As part of a brief conceit, the preface asks: “It’s enough, if what was before, be now so changed by Method and Application, that it shewes as new, and becomes more ready for Use…Why then should this Booke blush to shew it selfe?” Later the preface assures that the aim of the work is “A publique Advantage and peculiar Service to that Sexe generally beloved, and by the Author had in venerable estimation.”


Although The Lawes Resolutions does not advocate for women’s rights in a modern sense, it does represent a broad repertory of contemporary law.  The work draws together the “statutes and customs, with the Cases, Opinions and Arguments” which pertained in common law to women in the period. The five books cover the rights of an unmarried woman, or feme sole, the laws of marriage, the rights of widows and the ability to plead in court.  The work makes no apology for coverture, under which a woman’s legal status was subsumed to that of her husband during marriage, but also treats the wider legal capacity which women enjoyed as widows in common law.  A humorous side is shown again in the prefaces to the chapters, with such advice as “why mourn you so [young widows]…now you be free in libertie,” and in warnings against feckless suitors and heirs.  The work offers interesting insight into the legal status of women in early modern England, and is a wonderful addition to the Library’s holdings.

The Taussig acquisitions were funded in large part by a generous grant from Yale Law School’s Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund.

– RYAN GREENWOOD, Rare Book Fellow

Bookplate of Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780)
January 13, 2014

The Yale Law Library’s William Blackstone Collection, already the world’s best, was improved even more with 24 of the volumes we acquired from Anthony Taussig’s collection. One of the books was one that Blackstone himself owned: The Registrum brevium (London, 1531) , with the Blackstone bookplate shown here.

Our Blackstone Collection already included every edition of Blackstone’s Analysis of the laws of England, a synopsis of the lectures Blackstone gave at Oxford University which evolved into his Commentaries on the laws of England, the single most influential book in the history of Anglo-American common law. However, Taussig’s copies of the first edition (Oxford, 1756) and the sixth edition (Oxford, 1771) both contain extensive notes that appear to be by students. Taussig, himself an authority on Blackstone, believes the notes on the interleaving of the first edition might be from a student who actually attended Blackstone’s inaugural lectures, and thus represent an excellent research opportunity.

Blackstone is also remembered for reforming the Oxford University Press. Taussig writes that “Blackstone was an administrator of exceptional ability and ruthlessness. More or less single-handed he brought about the reform of the Oxford University Press between 1755 and 1758 despite the opposition of most of the Heads of the Colleges led by the Vice-Chancellor George Huddesford.” In To the Reverend Doctor Randolph, vice chancellor of the University of Oxford (Oxford, 1757?), Blackstone lists many “disagreeable truths” about inefficiencies and nepotism at the press. It is one of four pamphlets in the Taussig acquisition dealing with Blackstone’s reform campaign at Oxford.

Another eight pamphlets attack or support Blackstone’s position in the John Wilkes election controversy during his tenure in Parliament (1761-1770). Blackstone supported the expulsion of Wilkes, the political reformer, from the House of Commons. Blackstone’s critics accused Blackstone of contradicting the legal principles he put forth in his Commentaries. Other works in the Taussig acquisition reflect reactions to the Commentaries, and its influence on various areas of law practice and legal thought..

Finally, three volumes document Blackstone’s service on appeals panels for tax cases. The example below, from Cases on appeals concerning the duties on houses and windows, servants and inhabited  houses (London, 1780), is one of the earliest examples of an illustrated case report.

Cases on appeals concerning the duties on houses and windows, servants and Inhabited   houses (London, 1780).

The Taussig acquisitions were funded in large part by a generous grant from Yale Law School’s Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

 The common law common-placed : containing, the substance and effect of all the common law cases dispersed in the body of the law (London, 1726)
January 8, 2014

Giles Jacob (1686–1744), the leading legal writer of his age, was notable less for his style—Alexander Pope lampooned him in his Dunciad, calling Jacob “the blunderbuss of the law”—than for the variety and influence of his work. Jacob was prolific, and some of his efforts aimed to reach relatively new markets. The Students Companion, or, Reason of the Law (1743), like Jacob’s The Common Law Common-Placed (1726), were among a growing number of printed books intended to help law students with their studies. The Students Companion organized and digested statutes and cases, while The Common Law Common-Placed served as a ready commonplace book and reference guide for legal terms. The latter also attracted critics who felt that printed study aids took away the useful work of manual notetaking.

Jacob branched into areas that had not been treated in print before. His Lex Mercatoria, or, The Merchant’s Companion (1718), was the first guide written by a common lawyer in English on the subject of the law merchant, or customs of foreign trade.  The work was published by Edmund Curll, a successful Londoner whose mercenary publishing tactics also earned him the barbs of Pope. Both Curll and Jacob feuded with Pope publicly and in literary form for his separate invectives against them. Jacob’s law publishing career remained profitable, and his final work, Every Man his Own Lawyer (1788), a guide for citizens involved in litigation, was a great success. The Library’s 1788 edition of Every Man his Own Lawyer is one of two acquired from the Taussig collection, and contains an interesting new preface complaining against the introduction of English as the language of court and the abrogation of court hand. 

Even in 1788, Jacob’s editor defended the deceased writer against Pope’s criticism: if he was a blunderbuss, the many editions of his works “were of good report.”

From the Taussig collection the Library has acquired twenty-seven editions of Jacob’s works.

The Taussig acquisitions were funded in large part by a generous grant from Yale Law School’s Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund.

– RYAN GREENWOOD, Rare Book Fellow

The Law against Bankrupts, or, A Treatise Wherein the Statutes against Bankrupts are Explained (London, 1694)
January 3, 2014

Works on bankruptcy are well represented among the Taussig acquisitions. What might be called early English bankruptcy law established procedures against debtors who transferred property to friends as they fled to ecclesiastical asylum. By the time of Henry VIII, bankruptcy law had evolved to reflect the basic principles of a summary collection and division of assets among all creditors. Other provisions targeted the friends who fraudulently sheltered assets. Later legislation, and the enforcement of bankruptcy laws, could be harsh: bankrupts were increasingly imprisoned and could face corporal punishment, and criticism of English bankruptcy laws abounded into the modern era.

The Library’s acquisitions include two of the earliest English works devoted to the subject. John Stone’s The Reading upon the Statute of the Thirteenth of Elizabeth, Chapter 7, Touching Bankrupts (1656) and Thomas Gooding’s The Law against Bankrupts; or, A Treatise Wherein the Statutes against Bankrupts are Explained (1694), join later works critical of bankruptcy laws, including the anonymous Considerations on the Present Administration of the Bankrupt Laws (1795), and John King’s Oppression Deemed No Injustice Towards Some Individuals (1797), in which King took up his own cause in bankruptcy.

In the eighteenth century, the commissioners who ran bankruptcy proceedings also became a target of criticism, something seen in Considerations on the Present Administration of the Bankrupt Laws. The work sets out four basic recommendations for improving the laws: 1) proceedings under bankruptcy commissions should be more attentive and deliberate; 2) property should be better preserved and more justly divided among creditors; 3) all money received and paid under commissions should be investigated; and 4) mercy should be shown toward deserving bankrupts.

The great English judge Lord Mansfield thought that bankruptcy statutes were something of an embarrassment in common law; nevertheless, the law grew in complexity in the eighteenth century and led to detailed treatments like Cooke’s The Bankrupt Laws, 2 vols. (1793), which the Library has also acquired from Taussig.

The Taussig acquisitions were funded in large part by a generous grant from Yale Law School’s Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund.

– RYAN GREENWOOD, Rare Book Fellow

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