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Signed by William Blackstone

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BLACKSTONE, WILLIAM. (1723-1780). English jurist, statesman, and author whose Commentaries on the Laws of England was the first comprehensive treatment of English and constitution law. ALS. (“W. Blackstone”). 2pp. Small 4to. Wallingford, August 7, 1763. [To the Irish-born Whig politician who later became the first home secretary in 1782 and Prime Minister from 1782-1783, WILLIAM PETTY, 2ND EARL OF SHELBURNE (1737-1805)].

I have the Honour of Yours of the 3rd & beg leave to return Thanks with great Sincerity, on behalf of Lord Abingdon, Captain Bertie, & myself, for Your Lordship’s successful Interposition with Lord Sandwich; which I hope the young Gentleman’s Conduct in the Command you have so obligingly procured Him will never give You Reason to be sorry for.

If I knew when the important Business, that now falls under Your Lordship’s Care, will permit You to retire to Wycombe, I would endeavor (if possible) to pay You my Respects for one Night. But Your Lordship’s Department is an Object of such interesting Consequence, that I almost despair of that Pleasure. That success may attend every Branch of His Majesty’s Government is my ardent Wish, for the King’s sake & for your own; but I own my peculiar Wish is for Prosperity at that Board where Your Lordship at present presides; as well because it appears to me the most momentous in its Consequences to the Nation, as for the Pleasure it must give Yourself to do so effectual Service to the Crown & the Public, & the Reputation that must arise from so unwearied an Attention as Your Lordship bestows upon the Duties of Your Office. Time, I hope, will reconcile all reasonable Men to the Measures of the most amiable Prince [George III] that ever yet filled the British throne; and that we shall meet in the Winter with hearty Sentiments of Union; without which it requires but little Penetration to foresee that Actum est de Rege et Republica. I am, my Lord, with the truest Respect, Your most obliged & obedient humble Servt… I have inclosed Lord Sandwich’s Letter.”

It was as Oxford’s first Vinerian Professor of English Law (1758-1766) that Blackstone achieved his greatest renown, captivating his listeners “by the lucidity and charm of his style and by the simplicity with which he presented the subject” of law, (Encyclopedia Britannica). These lectures, the first on English law ever offered at a university, later became the basis for his four-volume Commentaries, published between 1765 and 1769. Eight editions of this highly successful work appeared during Blackstone’s lifetime, and its influence, particularly in the United States, was significant and lasting. Academic Robert Ferguson notes that “all our formative documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the seminal decisions of the Supreme Court under John Marshall  – were drafted by attorneys steeped in Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. So much was this the case that the Commentaries rank second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions,” (quoted in “Some Thoughts on Blackstone, Precedent and Originalism,” Vermont Law Review, Bader). As late as the end of the twentieth century, the Commentaries were routinely cited in Supreme Court decisions.

Distinguishing himself during the Seven Years War when he was barely 20, Shelburne, despite his youth, earned a position as aide-de-camp to King George III on December 4, 1760, that drew protests from the royal household and more senior members of the military. Elected to the House of Commons, Shelburne, upon his father’s death, took over his father’s seats in the British and Irish Houses of Lords as the Earl of Shelburne and Baron Wycombe in 1761. Shelburne participated in the negotiations that ended the Seven Years War before Prime Minister, George Grenville, made him First Lord of Trade in 1763. Frustrated for failing to secure the inclusion of William Pitt into the cabinet, Shelburne resigned after only a few months. Counting economists and philosophers including Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith and David Hume, among his friends and associates, Shelburne later advocated for Britain’s surrender in the American Revolution and in 1782 he became the first Home Secretary under the Marquess of Rockingham’s ministry, succeeding Rockingham as PM upon his death later that same year.

Our letter closes with the Latin phrase “Actum est de Rege et Republica” meaning “It is all over with the Republic,” possibly a reference to Grenville’s imperiled ministry, which faced the ire of George III for replacing the Earl of Bute and the growing discontent in the American colonies. The king finally dismissed Grenville in July 1765.

Blackstone played several roles in public affairs. While representing Hindon in Parliament beginning in 1761, he assumed the principalship of New Inn Hall, a chancery inn, before receiving George III’s patent of precedence at the bar as King’s Counsel. In 1763, he was named solicitor-general to the queen. He retired from academic life in 1766, devoting his final fourteen years to writing and civic affairs. Our document regarding a delay in proceedings with another attorney, was written after Blackstone joined Serjeants Inn, one of London’s Inns of Court, in 1770.

Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon (1740-1799) was the author of political works, a composer and patron of composers such as Franz Joseph Haydn, J.C. Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel. He was also known for unusual speeches before the House of Lords, which included support of American colonists’ demands. His brother, Captain Peregrine Francis Bertie (1741-1790) was commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Navy in 1759 and, between 1762 and 1764 commanded several ships including, beginning in August 1763, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Shannon, the position Blackstone discusses in our letter. Bertie represented Oxford in the House of Commons from 1774-1790 and supported Shelburne’s ministry.

At the age of ten, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), succeeded his grandfather as earl and took his seat in the House of Lords in 1739, becoming known for his skill as an orator. After several stints as First Lord of the Admiralty, Grenville appointed him Secretary of State for the Northern Department in August 1763. In addition to a long and respected political career, Sandwich is remembered for the legend that he invented the sandwich, as well as the namesake of the Sandwich Islands (the Hawaiian Islands), named in his honor by Captain James Cook, and for his tragic personal life which saw his wife’s descent into madness and the murder of his mistress and mother of his children, opera singer Martha Ray, a story recounted in the 1780 novel Love and Madness.  Shelburne’s relationship with another mistress, Fanny Murray, was the subject of the 1763 pornographic poem An Essay on Woman, purportedly written by radical journalist and fellow MP and Hellfire Club member John Wilkes; Sandwich’s November 1763 reading of Wilkes’ poem in Parliament led to Wilkes’ – who had fled to Paris – conviction in absentia for libel and seditious libel and he was declared an outlaw in January 1764. Our letter mentioning Sandwich was written just a few months prior to the scandal and around the time he was serving in Grenville’s government.

Written on the recto and verso of a single folded sheet; in overall fine condition.

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Signed by William Blackstone

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