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U. of I. law library acquires prized Blackstone legal commentaries

Mark Reutter, Business & Law Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After five years of looking, the University of Illinois College of Law has acquired the first American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law, completing its collection of original Blackstone editions.

The law library is now one of four libraries nationwide to possess all of the major editions of the seminal work by Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), a professor of common law at Oxford University.

First published in 1765-69, Blackstone’s four-volume Commentaries was the first authoritative synthesis of English law, rendering hundreds of years of formless common law into orderly and readable texts. Prior to that time, scholars confined themselves to the study of Roman law.

The first American edition, published in 1771-72 in Philadelphia, became a standard reference work in the courts of the 13 colonies. Thomas Jefferson and other revolutionary founders of America relied upon the volumes for their legal practices, and Blackstone played a role in the evolving concept of “individual natural rights” that underpins the U.S. Bill of Rights.

“The editions are a fundamental piece of the historical understanding of modern law and a great resource for scholars to compare perceptions of the law over time,” said Janis L. Johnston, director of the Albert E. Jenner Jr. Memorial Law Library at Illinois.

The Jenner Library joins Harvard University, Yale University and the Library of Congress in owning a complete set of original Blackstone editions.

Until the middle of the 19th century, most aspiring lawyers learned the law by reading Blackstone while apprenticing under more senior lawyers, according to Johnston.

“The Commentaries were a key source of legal education until law colleges became established,” she said. “Numerous related works were based on Blackstone or used his name somewhere in the title. Worldwide, there have been hundreds of editions in nearly as many languages.”

The Jenner Law Library purchased the American edition through endowment funds established by an anonymous donor.