BLACKSTONE, William (1723-80), of Wallingford, Berks.
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Family and Education
b. 10 July 1723, 3rd and posth. s. of Charles Blackstone, silkman and citizen of London by Mary, da. of Lovelace Bigg of Chilton Foliat, Wilts. educ. Charterhouse 1735-8; Pembroke, Oxf. 1738, Fellow, All Souls 1744; M. Temple 1741, called 1746. m. 6 May 1761, Sarah, da. of James Clitherow of Boston House, Brentford, 9 ch.1 Kntd. 12 Feb. 1770.
Recorder, Wallingford 1749; Vinerian prof. Eng. law, Oxf. 1758-66; patent of precedence Apr. 1761; bencher M. Temple 1761; principal of New Inn Hall, Oxf. 1761-6; solicitor-gen. to the Queen 1763-70; j. common pleas 9 Feb.; j. King’s bench 16 Feb. 1770; again j.c.p. 22 June 1770.
In 1750 Blackstone was a prominent Oxford Tory, and took the lead in proposing Sir Roger Newdigate as candidate for the university and in carrying his election in January 1751;2 he also played an important part in the Oxfordshire election of 1754, and in the legal argument over the petition. But he did not at the time think of a parliamentary career for himself; in 1753 he even decided to give up attending the courts at Westminster, and ‘to pursue my profession ... by residing at Oxford’. This resolution, he wrote to Newdigate on 3 July, had been growing upon him for some years:
My temper, constitution, inclinations, and a thing called principle, have long quarrelled with active life ... and have assured me I am not made to rise in it. Besides there are certain qualifications for being a public speaker, in which I am very sensible of my own deficiency; and happy that I am sensible so early.
But his Oxford lectures brought him back to an active life. Lord Fitzmaurice gave a ‘book’ of them to Bute for the Prince of Wales, and further copies were sent direct;3 and in March 1761 Fitzmaurice recommended Blackstone to Bute for a seat at Hindon which had through Fox been placed at his disposal:4
Blackstone is a man of business, and may be more so, and perhaps more useful. He is guardian or deeply connected with Ld. Suffolk and Ld. Abingdon, and may draw a certain part of that connexion with him. Such I take his merits to be, besides what your Lordship knows already of him.
Blackstone at first declined the offer;5 but two days later, on 11 Mar.: he would accept if a way was found ‘in which I can with honour and conscience satisfy the law in regard to a parliamentary qualification’. And on 12 Mar.: he sees a way, and will accept provided ‘the expense ... shall not be such as may injure my private fortune; which is confined within moderate bounds’. On 16 Mar. Blackstone’s name was given by Fox to Calthorpe, the patron of Hindon, with £2,000;6 and he was returned unopposed, apparently without any expense to himself (Shelburne wrote to Bute, 11 Dec. 1762: ‘it cost you £2,500’). But Blackstone, when erroneously informed that he had not been elected, wrote to Fitzmaurice on 29 Mar. 1761 that he was easy under the disappointment: ‘Your Lordship knows how little I expected or sought for a seat in Parliament.’
In the House Blackstone was an infrequent and ‘an indifferent speaker’:7 during the seven years 1761-8 only 14 speeches by him are recorded, mostly on subjects of secondary importance. Very learned and original, over-subtle and ingenious, in major debates he showed a lack of political common sense. On 9 May 1765, when supporting Morton’s motion to insert the name of the Princess of Wales in the Regency bill, he argued that the Regency Act of 1751 was ‘not yet expired’; ‘if the Crown should devolve on a minor son of the late Prince of Wales, she would be Regent’; and it would therefore be improper to exclude her from the new Act.8 His speech of 3 Feb. 1766 against the repeal of the Stamp Act is recorded at considerable length by his friend Newdigate.9 His contention was that obedience must be firmly enforced in dependent states—‘if they can refuse any laws they are sovereign’, and all other rights of sovereignty must be allowed to them. And here is a typical passage:
Journals 1623, House resolved our fishermen ought to have right to fish in New England and to take necessary wood and timber—a strong mark of superiority ... any infringement upon the natural rights for mankind the same as taxing—exertion of power over property—if you have one you have the other. Penalty upon persons in New England cutting down trees under 5 inch—penalties are the same as taxes—no difference between a law with a pecuniary penalty and a tax. The Stamp Act is only a law with a penalty.
On 22 Feb. Blackstone voted against the repeal; and on the 24th moved a clause that the repeal should apply to those colonies only ‘who expunge out of their Assembly the resolutions ... derogatory from the honour and dignity of the Crown and Parliament’.10The motion ‘was most childishly and peevishly supported’, wrote George Onslow to Pitt, ‘and, in about two hours, rejected without a division’.11 On 21 Apr. 1766 Blackstone spoke against the new window tax—showed its futility, ‘and how easy to be avoided’:12‘If every person stops a window will take away the whole—46,000, if one half 23,000—will reduce the tax.’13 On 5 Dec. 1766 Blackstone supported Grenville’s motion for compensation for sufferers from the corn embargo; but in January 1767 was classed by Charles Townshend as a Government supporter, and similarly by Newcastle, 2 Mar. 1767. His name does not, however, appear in the division lists on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and on nullum tempus, 17 Feb. 1768.
In 1768 Blackstone was returned for Westbury on Lord Abingdon’s interest. In the new Parliament most of his speeches—and between November 1768 and January 1770 he intervened in 11 debates—were on Wilkes. On 1 Feb. 1769 he made the motion which condemned Wilkes’s petition indicting Mansfield.14 But the next day he spoke against the motion charging Wilkes with libel in his prefatory remarks to Weymouth’s letter published in the St. James’s Chronicle:15
I must give my reasons for voting against gentlemen, with whom I have usually voted, and may hereafter vote. You have information more than enough to cast the severest censure upon that unhappy man. This paper is not the cause of the public, but the cause of the minister.
On 3 Feb. however, he spoke and voted for Wilkes’s expulsion because of the ‘Essay on Woman’:16
When I see all religion made a mockery and jest of, it behoves me to vindicate my God and my King.
On 8 May 1769 Blackstone gave it as his ‘firm and unbiassed opinion’ that Wilkes was disqualified by common law from sitting in the House, for ‘the law and custom of Parliament is part of the common law’; and the House of Commons, with regard to its own privileges and Members, can declare law without appeal or review.17 Over this he was ‘severely confuted out of his own commentaries on the Law’ by George Grenville who cited the passage enumerating nine cases of disqualification, of which expulsion was not one.18 Blackstone made no reply, and was next attacked in pamphlets and newspapers.19
When on 31 Jan. 1770 Dowdeswell moved that no person eligible by law can be incapacitated by a vote or resolution of the House, but by Act of Parliament only, Blackstone is reported to have said:20
As to the question whether expulsion does of itself imply incapacity, I have never answered it in the affirmative, neither have I ever declared the contrary. I did not vote in the question last year, and I shall not, by any vote that I may now give, be included in that question.
This was Blackstone’s last recorded speech in the House. On 9 Feb. his appointment to the Bench vacated his seat.
He died 14 Feb. 1780.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Sir Lewis Namier
- 1. According to the Diary of John Baker (ed. Yorke), 23 June 1775, 320, ‘has 8 children besides 3 or 4 dead’.
- 2. See W. R. Ward, Georgian Oxf. and letters from Blackstone to Newdigate in the Newdigate mss, Warws. RO.
- 3. See Blackstone to Bute, 15 Mar. 1759, Bute mss.
- 4. Bute mss.
- 5. Blackstone to Fitzmaurice, 9 Mar., Lansdowne mss.
- 6. Fox to Fitzmaurice, Lansdowne mss; Fitzmaurice to Bute, Bute mss.
- 7. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, ii. 198.
- 8. Grenville Pprs. iii. 30.
- 9. Newdigate ms B.2546/12-15.
- 10. Ryder’s ‘Debates’, Harrowby mss. See also Harris’s ‘Debates’, and Add. 35374, f. 287.
- 11. Chatham Corresp. ii. 395.
- 12. Harris.
- 13. Newdigate.
- 14. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 217, pp. 12-17, 21, and 48.
- 15. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 217, pp. 84-86.
- 16. Ibid. 128-9.
- 17. Egerton 219, pp. 361-9.
- 18. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, iii. 241 and note by the Le Marchant.
- 19. See letter addressed to him by Junius, 29 July 1769.
- 20. Gent. Mag. 1770, p. 548.