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Blackstone’s Influence on American Political Philosophy Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 16th, 2022

American politics, especially their early version, are linked to the philosophies pioneered in England. Before the establishment of the United States as an independent republic, its movement leaders pondered the ideas of liberty and civil rights.1 However, the law was not transparent enough for ordinary people to understand – it did not have a structure or a logical flow.2 This trend changed after William Blackstone, a British lawyer, published one of his most famous works, Commentaries on the Laws of England. This collection of comments and discussions highlighted the role of the citizen in the country and greatly influenced the formation of the American ideas of the common law.

In his Commentaries, Blackstone outlined four sets of rights for persons, things, private wrongs, and public wrongs.3 The books were innovative in that they systematized and explained the basis of common law, which made the idea of one’s rights understandable to the reader without a law degree. Published in 1765-1769, the Commentaries reached America by the 1770s, several years before the establishment of the US.4

Apart from being easy to read, the texts also contained ideas that aligned with Americans’ arising philosophy of liberty. Blackstone wrote that “political or civil liberty is the very end and scope of the constitution,” which one can see in the founding documents of the US.5 For example, the Declaration of Independence states that such rights as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are unalienable.6 At the same time, the Constitution posits that the goal of the people of the US is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”7 Thus, one can see the influence that Blackstone had on the Founding Fathers, providing a template on which they could establish the new country’s common law.

Tocqueville’s writing, Democracy in America, supports Blackstone’s position about people’s rights. Tocqueville considers people within a social system, putting people’s actions in circumstances and laws that surround them.8 This is a practice that is central to the common law described by Blackstone. Thus, in the US, the position of equality, based on the Commentaries’ foundation of liberty, leads to a particular set of laws that people have to uphold in democracy. Notably, both authors connect their understanding of democracy to the will of God, returning to the philosophy of revealed law.

Thus, America’s philosophy is firmly rooted in the idea that people exist under the law and the rights that were given to them by God. The same idea is present in the Bible: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.”9 The first documents of the US describe people’s rights as given to them by Nature and Nature’s God.10 The connection between law and scripture is direct in all legal works represented in this paper.

Overall, one cannot overstate the influence of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England on the formation of American political philosophy. The lawyer made the principles of common law accessible to all, providing a succinct description of most existing legal issues. Moreover, Blackstone put the person in the role of a citizen who was guided by God’s law and was granted freedoms that should be entrenched in the country’s documents. In particular, the right to liberty was ascribed to each person, serving as a foundation for the central belief described in the American Declaration of Independence.

Bibliography

Darsie, Heather R. “Our English Legal Forebearers and Their Contributions to the Practice of Law and American Jurisprudence: Sir Thomas More, Sir Edward Coke, and Sir William Blackstone.” Northern Illinois University Law Review 40 (2019): 227-237.

“Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” National Archives. Web.

Jolly, Richard Lorren. “Expanding the Search for America’s Missing Jury.” Michigan Law Review 116 (2017): 925-943.

Miles, Albert S., David L. Dagley, and Christina H. Yau. “Blackstone and His American Legacy.” Australia & New Zealand Journal of Law & Education 5 (2000): 46-59.

Strauss, Leo, and Joseph Cropsey, eds. History of Political Philosophy. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. PDF e-book.

“The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription.” National Archives. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Richard Lorren Jolly, “Expanding the Search for America’s Missing Jury,” Michigan Law Review 116 (2017): 928.
  2. Heather R. Darsie, “Our English Legal Forebearers and Their Contributions to the Practice of Law and American Jurisprudence: Sir Thomas More, Sir Edward Coke, and Sir William Blackstone,” Northern Illinois University Law Review 40 (2019): 234.
  3. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy 3rd ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), PDF e-book, chap. 26.
  4. Albert S. Miles, David L. Dagley, and Christina H. Yau, “Blackstone and His American Legacy,” Australia & New Zealand Journal of Law & Education 5 (2000): 47.
  5. Strauss and Cropsey, chap. 26.
  6. “Declaration of Independence: A Transcription,” National Archives. Web.
  7. “The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription,” National Archives. Web.
  8. Strauss and Cropsey, chap. 33.
  9. Rom. 2:12 (NIV)
  10. “Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.”
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IvyPanda. "Blackstone’s Influence on American Political Philosophy." June 16, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/blackstones-influence-on-american-political-philosophy/.

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