William Blackstone: Law and Letters in the Eighteenth Century

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9780199652013: William Blackstone: Law and Letters in the Eighteenth Century

Lawyer, judge, politician, poet, teacher, and architect, William Blackstone was a major figure in eighteenth century public life. Over his varied and brilliant career he made profound contributions to English politics, law, education, and culture through involvements in legal practice, Parliament, and the University of Oxford. Throughout he also remained engaged in his society's literary and spiritual life. Despite the breadth and influence of his work, Blackstone the man remains little known and poorly understood, the lack of engagement with his public and private life standing in stark contrast to the scale of his influence, particularly on the development and teaching of the law.

Blackstone's 'Commentaries on the Laws of England' remains the most celebrated and influential text in the Anglo-American common-law tradition. This great book has inevitably overshadowed its author, while the dispersal of his personal and professional papers further complicates the task of understanding the man behind the work. The lack of a thorough account of Blackstone's life has fuelled controversy surrounding his intellectual background and political views. Was he the deeply reactionary conservative painted by Bentham, or rather a committed reformer and early champion of human rights?

The present biography makes full use of a considerable body of new evidence that has emerged in recent years to shed light on the life, work, and times of this neglected figure in English and American history. Exploring Blackstone's family upbringing and private life, his political activities and ideology, his religious outlook, and championing of the enlightenment, this book weaves together the threads of an extraordinary mind and career.

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About the Author:


Born in Melbourne of English parents, Wilfrid Prest was educated at the universities of Melbourne and Oxford; after a brief spell as a publishing trainee he returned to a lectureship in history at the University of Adelaide, where he has spent most of his academic career, apart from two years as Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University, and visiting positions at All Souls College Oxford, Clare Hall Cambridge, Princeton University, St Andrew's University, and the Australian National University. From 2002-2007 he held an Australian Research Council fellowship for a project on the life and works of William Blackstone at the University of Adelaide, where he is currently Professor Emeritus and Visiting Research Fellow in History and Law.

Review:

"A valuable account of the life of the author of the 'Commentaries' on the Laws of England, the first comprehensive and reliable guide to the common law, but who is otherwise unknown to recent generations...Prest describes Blackstone's academic, barristerial and judicial careers with scholarly detail and insight." --Times Online

"...a splendidly controlled and fascinating story of a major historical figure who has never had anything like such treatment before...richly documented, unwaveringly fair but never constrained by the relative lack of personal sources, and above all judicious, indeed magisterial, albeit with numerous human touches..." --Professor Paul Langford, Lincoln College, Oxford

"This fine biography of Sir William Blackstone displays both Wilfrid Prest's command of English legal history and his ability to tell the dancer from the dance. For more than two centuries now...Blackstone the jurisprudent has been obscured by Blackstone the law-book. Behind the lucidity and balance of Blackstone's Commentaries, Prest reveals the pompous, energetic man who penned them: an orphan, a scholar, a forceful academic politician, a shrewd estate manager, and, finally, when his ship came in, a thoughtful and progressive judge. Prest has also overcome the temptation to dwell on his subject's times rather than his life. To our continuing discussion of Blackstone, this book restores the human element...The William Blackstone who appears in these pages is a man to be taken on his own forceful terms." --Allen D. Boyer, Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, Vol 22, 2010

"There is much to commend in Wilfrid Prest's biography..." --H. T. Dickinson, Times Literary Supplement, February 2009

"[An] exceptionally well-written and absorbing study." --David Womersley, The Social Affairs Unit: July 27, 2009

"...a fascinating account of the man and the eighteenth-century social, political and legal milieu in which he lived...Professor Prest has written a substantial, fair-minded and elegant biography of a most distinguished man. It deserves a wide readership." --Dr R O'Regan, Supreme Court of Queensland Library History Program Yearbook 2008

"I...meticulously researched, balanced in tone, and eminently readable." --Kyle Day, Bar News (NSW Bar Association) Winter 2009

"Wilfrid Prest has produced an important and much anticipated study. His William Blackstone: Law and Letters in the Eighteenth Century provides the authoritative and skillful biography that the 'learned Commentator on the Laws of England' long deserved...Thanks to Prest's researches, both editorial and biographical, we are now equipped with dramatically more information about Blackstone's career and activities than at any previous time. And the insights provided in this skillful and illuminating biography are a splendid reward for such extensive researches." --David Lieberman, Legal History, Volume 13, No. 1, 2009

"Wilfrid Prest's intellectual biography presents us with a more rounded and, it must be admitted, more attractive, figure than hitherto imagined, and to this extent his exploration of the byways of Blackstone's career is very valuable" --Andrew Lewis, The International Journal of Law in Context

"Prest reminds us in his conclusion that the aim of his book was "to tell the story of Blackstone's life and work in his own time, while recognizing the Commentaries as still his major claim to fame"...Wilfred Prest accomplished his objective, and did so very well indeed." --James Oldham, The Journal of Law and History Review

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