When I say old, I mean the book was printed in 1772. The book is important because it was critical to the development of the modern anti-slavery movement.
I’m in the midst of preparing a series of videos that will tell the story of the legal systems of the world through the story of their books and manuscripts. Right now, I’m working on a video about Blackstone’s Commentaries, the great eighteenth-century survey of the English common law. So I went to visit Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian at Yale Law School, which has the best collection of Blackstone anywhere.
As Mike and I were talking about Blackstone, he also showed me some treasures from his recent headline-making acquisition from the library of British barrister Anthony Taussig. One of them caught me off guard.
Here’s how Mike introduced the Taussig collection—and the book:
I had written about Somerset’s Case twelve years ago, after seeking what traces I could find of the life of James Somerset, the slave at issue in the litigation. In 2004, I discussed his story in my first book, Black Trials. Naturally, I couldn’t resist peaking into Sharp’s copy of Francis Hagrave’s argument in favor of a conception of liberty we now take for granted.
I first looked at his familiar hand on one of the book’s early leafs:
I saw this fragmentary reference to the cat o’ nine tails (I can’t decipher the first line):
And then I turned to Sharp’s marginalia—traces of his reading mind that are moving in their brevity (the word here is “manumission”):
One of the things that struck me most about the notes is how often they were simply dates. In Sharp’s concern for liberty, his mind was deeply historical.
There was something incredibly moving to me about this. So I began to record the numbers up close.
As I was beginning tire, something caught my eye.
In his argument before the Court of King’s Bench—1772—Hargrave cited the first volume of the first edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries—1765: the very book I had come to the library to examine. When he cited Blackstone, Hargrave was in the midst of conceding that the great jurists Grotius and Puffendorf indicated that slavery could be lawfully entered by contract. On this, Blackstone cast doubt.
The telling reference is in note n.
Of course, we had to open the first edition of the Commentaries to page 412.
It was part of the chapter “Of Master and Servant.”
Here is the start of the passage to which Hargrave seems to be referring:
And here is how it concludes:
“Of what validity then can a sale be which destroys the very principles upon which all sales are founded?”
Books are beautiful things.