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Found: A First American Edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries

This post is contributed by Gabriella Angeloni, Supervisory Buchanan/Burnham Fellow

William Ellery’s complete four-volume set of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England was found tucked at the bottom of an uncatalogued box of books in NHS collections. This find is particularly exciting, as it is a rare first American edition published on subscription by Philadelphia printer Robert Bell between 1771 and 1772. Ellery, as he did with all of his books, inscribed his name on each title page and also included “Jan[uar]y 1774.”

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William Ellery’s name inscribed on the title page of Blackstone’s Commentaries, Volume 4. NHS Collections.

Prior to Bell’s edition, colonial American readers had to purchase the books through their agents abroad or in London themselves. The first American edition, printed in quarto, had an advanced subscription list of 1,587 sets. William Ellery, included on the subscriber list as printed in the fourth volume, was one of these original subscribers.1 The books were so popular that Bell ran a second edition from 1773-1775. Each volume proudly indicates on its title page that it was, first and foremost, printed in America—all caps, larger type-face, and italicized, to distinguish from the rest of the publication information.

William Blackstone was a famous jurist best known for his influential publication on English common law, based on lectures he gave at Oxford. The first English editions were printed by Clarendon Press at Oxford from 1765 through 1769. Because of its clear language and systematic analysis, Commentaries on the Laws of England became the key text of legal education in England and its colonies. It seems only natural that Blackstone’s Commentaries would find their way into Ellery’s hands. William Ellery, an established merchant and naval officer, served as Clerk of the Court following the Seven Years’ War and started his own law practice in Newport in 1770.

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An example of William Ellery’s marginalia in Blackstone’s Commentaries, Volume 4. NHS Collections.

A thoughtful reader, Ellery made notes in the margins of all of his volumes—sometimes making note of questions or simply providing short subject headings. He was also a critical and unyielding editor, frequently correcting typos in the text itself and further highlighting errors in the margins. And, like any rigorous academic editor, Ellery even double-checked Blackstone’s footnotes and questioned his use of sources.2

Ellery was just one of fourteen signers of the Declaration of Independence who owned this particular set of Blackstone’s Commentaries. John Adams’ set of the same edition, although missing the first volume, is currently at the Boston Public Library. While not an original subscriber, Thomas Jefferson’s set, also incomplete, is at the University of Virginia. Like Ellery, both of their sets include annotations and marginalia.

He is listed as “William Ellery, Esq; Attorney at Law, New-port, Rhode-Island.”
Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Volume I (Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1771), 101. In regard to the footnotes for the expression “within any of the king’s dominions,” Ellery writes at the bottom of the page: “No such Expression in the year Books cited to: And in Calvin’s Case it is mentioned only in Hooks, and as Coke’s Opinion only.”