Being on leave from work for the past several weeks, first for the holidays and then unexpectedly for personal reasons, has made me miss my lunchtime excursions to explore the city. But I am back in the office now, and on my first outing of the new year I encountered a statue located in front of but off to the side near the United States Courthouse. That statue is of William Blackstone, and like many of the statues and memorials here in D.C. it has an interesting backstory.
Sir William Blackstone was an English jurist, judge and politician of the eighteenth century who is best known for writing a four-volume work on English law. These volumes, known as Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, would not only dominate the common law legal system for more than a century, but also help shape America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and have a substantial influence in American law. His Commentaries would also influence the likes of Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln. And to this day, his Commentaries still continue to be cited in Supreme Court decisions.
In the early 1920’s the American Bar Association presented a sculpture of Blackstone to the English Bar Association. The gift, however, was too tall to be placed in the Royal Courts of Justice. The sculpture, designed by American artist Paul Wayland Bartlett, was later cast in Europe and the statue was presented back to the United States for display.
The bronze statue is a nine-foot standing portrait of Blackstone dressed in his judicial robes and long curly wig, and holding a copy of his legal publication entitled “Commentaries” in his left hand. It is elevated on a granite base. Congress approved the placement of the sculpture in 1943, and appropriated $10,000 for the installation. It was installed later that year under the authority of the National Park Service. The statue is on the grounds of the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse, at 333 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Judiciary Square neighborhood.