Sir William Blackstone was born in London to a wealthy family of the middle class and received a broad education in logic, mathematics, and the classics. A member and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he became a barrister in 1746 after studying at the Middle Temple. His practice went badly, and he subsequently devoted himself to teaching at Oxford in 1753, three years after receiving the Doctor in Civil Law degree. His lectures on English law were the first ever presented in a university setting. Blackstone later abandoned academic life in favor of a political one. From 1761 until 1770, he served in the House of Commons as a member of Parliament while continuing to practice law, and in 1763, was made solicitor general to the queen. In 1770, Blackstone became judge of the Court of Common Pleas, a position he held until his death.
While Blackstone’s work was criticized for frequently being inaccurate, uncritical, and simplistic, his historical importance resides in the ability he had to explain and describe to the layman, in simple and elegant terms, the complexities of English law. He was often criticized, especially by the reformist Jeremy Bentham [q.v.], for his view that dissent in law was a crime, since civil laws are valid due to their harmony with the laws of nature and God.
Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) were the first attempt, since Henri de Bracton [q.v.] in the 13th century, to describe the doctrines of English law in a comprehensive and systematic manner. The enormously influential Commentaries, published in four volumes, became the basis of the university system of legal education in both England and the United States. In the section “Homicide,” Blackstone characterizes suicide as “among the highest crimes” and an act of cowardice, and outlines possible punishments of suicides by the law.
Sir William Blackstone, “Homicide,” Book IV, chapter XIV, section III, of Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 volumes, 18th edition, ed. Archer Ryland. London: Sweet, Pheney, Maxwell, Stevens & Sons, 1829, pp. 188-190. Also from the Avalon Project at Yale Law School.
from COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND
Felonious homicide is … the killing of a human creature, of any age or sex, without justification or excuse. This may be done, either by killing one’s self, or another man.
Self-murder, the pretended heroism, but real cowardice, of the Stoic philosophers, who destroyed themselves to avoid those ills which they had not the fortitude to endure, though the attempting it seems to be countenanced by the civil law, yet was punished by the Athenian law with cutting off the hand, which committed the desperate deed. And also the law of England wisely and religiously considers, that no man hath a power to destroy life, but by commission from God, the author of it: and, as the suicide is guilty of a double offence; one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for; the other temporal, against the king, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects; the law has therefore ranked this among the highest, crimes, making it a peculiar species of felony, a felony committed on oneself. a felo de se therefore is he that deliberately puts an end to his own existence, or commits any unlawful malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death: as if, attempting to kill another, he runs upon his antagonist’s sword; or, shooting at another, the gun bursts and kills himself. The party must be of years of discretion, and in his senses, else it is no crime. But this excuse ought not to be strained to that length, to which our coroners’ juries are apt to carry it, viz. that the very act of suicide is an evidence of insanity; as if every man who acts contrary to reason, had no reason at all: for the fame argument would prove every other criminal non compos, as well as the self-murderer. The law very rationally judges, that every melancholy or hypochondriac fit does not deprive a man of the capacity of discerning right from wrong; which is necessary, as was observed in a former chapter, to form a legal excuse. And therefore, if a real lunatic kills himself in a lucid interval, he is a felo de se as much as another man.
But now the question follows, what punishment can human laws inflict on one who has withdrawn himself from their reach? They can only act upon what he has left behind him, his reputation and fortune: on the former, by an ignominious burial in the highway, with a stake driven through his body; on the latter, by a forfeiture of all his goods and chattels to the king: hoping that his care for either his own reputation, or the welfare of his family, would be some motive to restrain him from so desperate and wicked an act. And it is observable, that this forfeiture has relation to the time of the act done in the felon’s lifetime, which was the cause of his death. As if husband and wife be possessed jointly of a term of years in land, and the husband drowns himself; the land shall be forfeited to the king, and the wife shall not have it by survivorship. For by the act of casting himself into the water he forfeits the term; which gives a title to the king, prior to the wife’s title by survivorship, which could not accrue till the instant of her husband’s death. And, though it must be owned that the letter of the law herein borders a little upon severity, yet it is some alleviation that the power of mitigation is left in the breast of the sovereign, who upon this (as on all other occasions) is reminded by the oath of his office to execute judgment in mercy.