Learning the Law: Blackstone’s Commentaries

Portrait of William Blackstone, from Commentaries on the Laws of England (London, 1774).
November 7, 2018

William Blackstone. Commentaries on the laws of England. 6th edition. London: W. Strahan, T. Cadell, 1774.
Gift of Robert Freilich, Yale Law School Class of 1957.

Blackstone’s Commentaries is the single most influential work in the history of Anglo-American law. It began as a series of lectures on the common law given at Oxford, and was eventually published in the 1760s to great acclaim. It soon became the essential text for anyone studying the law not only in England, but in Canada and the US as well. It is no coincidence that the Commentaries, which synthesized the vast unwieldy expanse of English common law, is, like the Institutes before it, organized in four books.

William Blackstone. An abridgment of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the laws of England, in a series of letters from a father to his daughter. London: John Hatchard and Son, 1822.
Gift of Macgrane Coxe, Yale Law School Class of 1957.

A once popular format for educational books took the key parts of a primary work and presented them in a series of “letters” or essays, written for a particular audience. This abridgment of the Commentaries takes this form – it is written as a series of letters from a lawyer father to his daughter.

Griffith Ogden Ellis. Blackstone quizzer B: being questions and answers on book 2 of Blackstone’s Commentaries. 3rd edition. Detroit: Collector Publishing Co., 1896.

Blackstone Quizzers functioned as early bar prep packages for students – and for only 50 cents! The author was a professor at the Sprague Correspondence School of Law, the first correspondence law school in the US, which opened in 1890. It allowed for long-distance legal education, and offered opportunities for, like women and minorities, who were barred from most traditional law schools.

Asa Kinne, Asa. The most important parts of Blackstone’s Commentaries, reduced to questions and answers. 2nd edition. New York: W.E. Dean …, 1839.

This set of questions and answers on Blackstone’s Commentaries is marked by a large stain – perhaps some careless student spilled their coffee?

John Gifford. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the laws and constitution of England: abridged for the use of students, and adapted to modern statutes and decisions. London: Sir Richard Phillips and Co. …, 1820.

This abridgment of the Commentaries is explicitly aimed at students. As the Commentaries were over 50 years old by the time of this volume’s publication, it was brought up to date with contemporary statutes and case law.


–Ryan R. Martins, Rare Book Fellow

“Learning the Law: The Book in Early Legal Education” is on display October 1 to December 14, 2018, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, located on Level L2 of the Yale Law School (127 Wall Street, New Haven CT). The exhibition is open to the general public 10am-6pm daily, and open to Yale affiliates until 10pm.

A full catalogue of the exhibit can be found here: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/amlaw/18/

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