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Introduction to Tucker's Blackstone

by Jon Roland

The classic exposition of English Common Law at the time of the founding of the American Republic was Commentaries on the Laws of England, by William Blackstone, which was used as a standard reference and law book by lawyers, judges, and the Founders, who incorporated the applicable provisions of it into the U.S. Constitution, especially for the definitions of its terms.

However, Blackstone's Commentaries were written for a monarchical system of government, and needed to be adapted to the needs of the new republic. This was first done by St. George Tucker, who taught law and who had Blackstone's Commentaries republished together with his lecture notes in 1803 in a 5-volume set familiarly known as Tucker's Blackstone.

Tucker was originally an anti-federalist, but switched to support for the Constitution when it was agreed to add a bill of rights to it. At the time he wrote, however, the amendments were still being referred to by the numbers assigned to them when they were proposed, not the numbers later assigned to them after ten of the twelve were adopted, so in reading this you need to subtract two from the amendment numbers to get the numbers we are familiar with today.

Tucker's comments provide a number of insights into the consensus for interpretation of the Constitution that prevailed shortly after its ratification, after the debates had settled down and the Constitution was put into practice. It is therefore an important reference for argument concerning the original intent of the Founders concerning its provisions, alongside such works as the Federalist and Madison's Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention (which were not published until 1840). It differs from the Federalist in that it is not a polemic arguing for ratification, but a balanced exposition that explores the remaining defects not corrected by the first amendments, some of which remain to this day. It is remarkable to read some of Tucker's warnings of the hazards to liberty that the young republic faced, warnings that seem especially prescient in the light of recent events.

We have made a few changes from the 1803 published edition. Tucker's original footnotes used asterisks, daggers, etc., at the bottom of each page. We have converted these to endnotes and numbered them sequentially for each major section or note. My own footnotes are numbered separately, and are indicated with an "E" preceding the numeral to indicate they are not Tucker's notes. I quote Tucker's footnotes verbatim, but where the cited document is available online, may provide a link to the passage in that document cited.

Needless to say, we do not follow the typographical convention used in that day of preceding each line of a quoted passage with a double quote, but follow the modern convention on that.

Tucker's notes contain much good material, but they are his lecture notes and they are not very well organized or divided into sections, so I have in some cases arbitrarily divided them into sections of a length suitable for online browsing, and provided my own section titles that indicate the contents of the section.

I have also italicized book titles more consistently than Tucker, or his typesetter, did, assuming that such italicization, since it was used to some degree, would be in accordance with Tucker's intent.

This work is being converted in stages, and may not yet be completed at the time you read this. Any errors are mine, and I hope you will inform me of any corrections that need to be made.


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