William Blackstone is often identified as a natural law thinker for whom property rights were preeminent, but reading the Commentaries complicates that description. I propose that Blackstone’s concept of law is more concerned with human invention and artifice than with human nature. At the start of his treatise, Blackstone identifies security, liberty and property as “absolute” rights that form the foundation of English law. But while security and liberty are “inherent by nature in every individual” and “strictly natural,” Blackstone is only willing to say that “private property is probably founded in nature.” Moreover, Blackstone is clear that there is nothing natural about the right of inheritance, “a wise and effectual, but clearly a political, establishment.” Indeed, he critiques the assumption that a legal right as central and longstanding as inheritance must be somehow “natural,” observing that “we often mistake for nature what we find established by long and inveterate custom.” At the same time, Blackstone celebrates the many features of common law that have simply been made up. Blackstone’s unflinching formal, fictional, “as if” approach invests property law with a certain materiality. The only way to actualize a make-believe vision is to act it out, to embody it in formal doctrines and practices. In comparison, the modern realist approach to law as an instrument for policy is quite abstract. This leaves realist critics of Blackstonian formalism in the ironic position of arguing for a more transparent approach to law that winds up obscuring the constructive and constructed quality of the legal system that comes through loud and clear in the Commentaries. By openly celebrating legal fictions, Blackstone reveals the truth that law is a great fabrication, not some necessary reflection of the way things are, or should be.
Law and Artifice in Blackstone's Commentaries,
Journal of Law: A Periodical Laboratory of Legal Scholarship (3 Chapter One)
Available at: https://scholarship.law.pitt.edu/fac_articles/437
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