Hi, I’m Jessie Allen. I’m a law professor and writer living in Pittsburgh. For Blackstone Weekly I’m reading my way through Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) and posting responses. I started in November 2008. My goal is to work my way all the way through, describing (and linking to) the section I’ve just read, and posting a reaction. There are four volumes, and at this rate it’s going to take a few years. It’s my Matterhorn.
Ever since I was in law school in the 1990s, I have wondered what was actually in Blackstone’s Commentaries. In law school, you read constantly. Law professors think nothing of assigning hundreds of pages of dense text to be read overnight. But although I saw fairly frequent references to Blackstone, nobody ever asked me to read the Commentaries. It was apparently not ever thus. John Marshall, an early and extraordinarily influential Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, is said to have read the entire Commentaries four times. Both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas supposedly mastered constitutional theory by studying Blackstone. These days, the Commentaries remain a favorite source for quotes supporting legal arguments, but practically nobody reads it. The truth is, part of Blackstone’s persuasive power today comes from the text’s simultaneous familiarity and mystery. Although all American lawyers know of Blackstone, precious few know what is actually in this encyclopedic work. As a result, citations to the Commentaries stir vague feelings of anxiety and inferiority in legal readers who wonder if they perhaps ought to be better acquainted with such a famous and foundational text. I set out to make that acquaintance and to see how it might illuminate aspects of my daily life –legally and otherwise.