The eighteenth century British jurist William Blackstone set forth a common law model which heavily influenced the American founding fathers many years later. The model had two main categories – the law of nature and the law of revelation. Due to his definition of law in Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone had a tremendous impact on the American founders: “A rule of civil conduct prescribed by the Supreme power in a state, commanding what is right, and prohibiting what is wrong” (Snyder, A).
According to Blackstone, man has a duty to “pursue his own true and substantial happiness”. Thus, in the Declaration of Independence, being influenced by William Blackstone’s common law model, the founding fathers referred to certain unalienable rights among which there were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. William Blackstone explained that since man was created in the image of God, the law of nature establishes a rule of moral conduct based on God’s law. As a result, a rule of action presumes man’s duties to God, self, and neighbor.
He defines the law of nature as “eternal, immutable laws of good and evil” that set up an objective standard of morality as well as right and wrong actions as dictated by God. According to Blackstone, there are two standards by which actions of an individual should be gauged: malum in se and malum prohibitum. The first one malum in se, or bad in and of itself, is an act that violates the image of God in oneself or in other men. This standard presumes that a man has no subjective right to do something that has been established as objectively wrong.
The second standard malum prohibitum, or bad because prohibited, is based on certain laws seen in the law of nature and nature’s God. Malum prohibitum states that the role of government is to command what is right and prohibit what is wrong. Mainly, the government should protect those rights already given to every individual by God. For William Blackstone, Parliament of the United Kingdom played a central role as the source of legislation where the House of Commons and the House of Lords balanced each other (Stacy, R).
In order to present his perspective on law and the legal system in logic and clear way, William Blackstone divided the law into four volumes and themes. These four books have the following titles: “Rights of Persons”, “Rights of Things”, “Private Wrongs”, and finally “Public Wrongs”. The first book is devoted to examination of British government, the royal family, marriage, children, the clergy, organizations and corporations as well as the “absolute rights of individuals”. The second book tells about the right of property.
The third book includes the information about torts while the fourth book discusses the crime and punishment, including offenses against God and religion. James Wilson was one of the first five Justices on the U. S. Supreme Court. He accepted common law model of William Blackstone and looked to its principles while forming his own decisions in Congress and the Court (Bailey, G). The American founding documents and the powers of government were greatly ruled by this common law model that set forth legal and behavioral standards in the United States based on the law of nature and nature’s God.
James Wilson accepted Blackstone’s different viewpoint on the role of legislator and the role of judges. For Blackstone, the judges were “not delegated to pronounce a new law, but to maintain and expound the old one” (Commentaries on the Laws of England, Section III). That is, their role is not to make the law, but to interpret and apply it. James Wilson rejected judicial activism in America’s federal courts, which later helped to establish moral relativism. Common law model of Blackstone also influenced Wilson’s later viewpoint on slavery (Bailey, G).
According to Blackstone, equality is composed of two parts: 1) equality is prescribed by the law of nature, and 2) there are no special privileges afforded to anyone in civil terms. Wilson applied the common law model of Blackstone to his own viewpoint on slavery. As Wilson mentioned, “slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power in the master over life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the common law…” James Wilson and the Framers tried to make a governmental system to be by the people, and for the people. U. S.
Presidents had different attitude to common law model by William Blackstone: some agreed and some disagreed. However, no one can deny that Blackstone played an influential part in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. His ideas and thoughts from the Commentaries were cited many times during the constitutional convention. Many American Presidents like Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln and others addressed Blackstone’s common law model in different cases while many lawyers considered it as the primary and very often the only source of the common law (Stacy, R).
As many critics and lawyers state, to address and return to common law model by William Blackstone is a necessary and urgent step on the road to restoring the greatness of America’s federal republic since this model recognizes the inalienable rights inherent in the law of nature and nature’s God.
Works Cited: Bailey, G. (2001). Blackstone in America. New York: Macmillan Snyder, A. (1995). William Blackstone and his Commentaries. New York: Prentice-Hall Stacy, R. (2002). Sir William Blackstone and the Common Law: Blackstone’s Legacy to America. ACW Press