Wilfrid Prest


On January 28, 1746, as Cumberland's forces pursued the retreating Jacobite army into Scotland, a twenty-three year old newly-minted Bachelor of Civil Law and junior fellow of All Souls College sat down to write a characteristically cheerful letter to his lawyer uncle Seymour Richmond, shortly after reaching "my new Habitation (which is at Mr Stoke's a Limner in Arundel St)." In the light of what is becoming clear about William Blackstone's own accomplishments and interests in draftsmanship and the visual arts, his choice of London lodgings was perhaps not entirely accidental. Be that as it may, this report on what was seemingly Blackstone's first serious encounter with the common law (even though he had by now accumulated a full five years' standing at the Middle Temple), exudes a jaunty self-confidence, couched in topically martial language: "I have stormed one Book of Littleton, & opened my Trenches before ye 2d; and I can with Pleasure say I have met with no Difficulty of Consequence...." Having established that even the common law's notoriously arid mysteries held no terrors for a person of his intellectual precocity, William went on to muse in more general terms about the nature of the body of knowledge with which he was now becoming acquainted, as it would seem for the first time: