Commentaries On The Laws Of England "The King Can Do No Wrong"

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"The King Can Do No Wrong"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Sir William Blackstone was a distinguished student both at school and later at Oxford. He was admitted to the English bar in 1746, but his legal practice was not successful; he lacked elocutionary power, and his personality did not fit him for the role of popular advocate. He abandoned his practice and returned to his fellowship at Oxford. Since there was no provision for any courses dealing with the laws and constitution of the country, Blackstone decided to offer a series of lectures on the subject. So successful were these that they gave Oxford a lasting and enviable distinction; the reputation of the school and the courses grew steadily, and as a result one wealthy patron of the university endowed a school of law there. Blackstone was its first professor. He wrote a number of legal works, but the best known of these is his Commentaries on the Laws of England. It is the best work of its type written up to that time, and has kept his name alive since; now considered one of the classics of legal literature, it is still studied, consulted, and cited. In this work Blackstone seeks to cover and to explain in plain terms the whole body of British law. This endeavor not only involves the statement and explanation of individual laws, but careful description of important precedents and historic cases. British law had sufficiently matured by Blackstone's time to allow a methodical treatment of it; Blackstone's work is not only methodical and logically arranged, but possesses remarkable clarity, particularly noticeable in areas of complexity. One important aspect of law in England is its definition of monarchy and of the unique position enjoyed by the king. After discussing "the injuries, or private wrongs, that may be offered by one subject to another, all of which are redressed by the command and authority of the king," Blackstone takes up the matter of injuries committed by the royal personage:

That the king can do no wrong is a necessary and fundamental principle of the English constitution: meaning only, as has formerly been observed, that, in the first place, whatever may be amiss in the conduct of public affairs is not chargeable personally on the king, nor is he, but his ministers, accountable for it to the people; and, secondly, that the prerogative of the crown extends not to do any injury; for, being created for the benefit of the people, it cannot be exerted to their prejudice. Whenever, therefore, it happens that, by misinformation or inadvertence, the crown hath been induced to invade the private rights of any of its subjects, though no action will lie against the sovereign (for who shall command the king?), yet the law hath furnished the subject with a decent and respectful mode of removing that invasion, by informing the king of the true state of the matter in dispute; and, as it presumes that to know of any injury and to redress it are inseparable in the royal breast, it then issues as of course, in the king's own name, his orders to his judges to do justice to the party aggrieved.
The distance between the sovereign and his subjects is such that it rarely can happen that any personal injury can immediately and directly proceed from the prince to any private man; and, as it can so seldom happen, the law in decency supposes that it never will or can happen at all. . . . But injuries to the rights of property can scarcely be committed by the crown without the intervention of its officers; for whom the law in matters of right entertains no respect or delicacy, but furnishes various methods of detecting the errors or misconduct of those agents, by whom the king has been deceived and induced to do a temporary injustice.