Bentham and Blackstone: A Lifetime's Dialectic*

J. H. Burnsa1

a1 University College London

The full range of Bentham's engagement with Blackstone's view of law is beyond the scope of a single article. Yet it is important to recognize at the outset, even in a more restricted enquiry into the matter, that the engagement, begun when Bentham, not quite sixteen years of age, started to attend Blackstone's Oxford lectures (from which the Commentaries on the Laws of England emerged in the first edition of 1765–9), was indeed a lifelong affair. Whatever Bentham had in mind when, at the age of eighty, in 1828, he began to write a work entitled ‘A familar view of Blackstone: or say Blackstone familiarized’, the manuscripts at least suffice to prove that ‘Our Author’ was still in the forefront of his mind at that octogenarian but still indefatigably active stage of his career. Every aspect of Bentham's multifarious intellectual activity over the intervening decades had been touched in some measure by his response to Blackstone's ideas. It still seems true to say what was said a dozen years ago:

It would be an exaggeration to say that Bentham elaborated his own conception of law by way of a constant and conscious dialectic with the views of Blackstone. But it would be an exaggeration for which the evidence would afford some excuse.


* A version of this paper was presented on 6 March 1987 at the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought, which is supported by grants from the Research Programs Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities (an independent federal agency), the John Ben Stow Memorial Trust, the George Washington University, and the Exxon Education Foundation.