Curtis, Benjamin Robbins

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Benjamin Robbins Curtis served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1851 to 1857. A native of Massachusetts, Curtis wrote a famous dissent in dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857), a case that upheld the legitimacy of slavery and denied free African Americans U.S. citizenship.

Curtis was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1809. He graduated from Harvard College in 1829 and Harvard Law School in 1832. Curtis established a law practice and became active in the whig party. In 1851, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and later that year was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President millard fillmore.

During his brief tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court, Curtis made a lasting impact with his dissent in Dred Scott and his majority opinion in Cooley v. Board of Wardens, 53 U.S. 299, 13 L. Ed. 996 (1851). Curtis was one of two dissenters in Dred Scott, which the majority opinion viewed as the final word on the legal merits of slavery and the issue of citizenship for African Americans. Chief Justice Roger Taney's majority opinion concluded that at the time of the ratification of the Constitution, there were no African-American citizens in the United States. Therefore, the Framers never contemplated that African Americans could be U.S. citizens. Curtis refuted this conclusion, pointing out that there were African-American citizens in both northern and southern states at the time of ratification. They were part of the "people of the United States" that the Constitution described. In addition, Curtis stated that "every free person born on the soil of a State, who is a citizen of that State by force of its Constitution or laws, is also a citizen of the United States."

The majority opinion also held that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress did not have the power to legislate policies on slavery in the federal territories. Curtis countered this finding by noting 14 instances where Congress had legislated on slavery prior to the Missouri Compromise. He concluded that this demonstrated that Congress had the power to regulate slavery in the territories.

"At the time of the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, all free native-born inhabitants of … [five states], though descended from African slaves, were not only citizens of those States, but … possessed the franchise of electors …"
Benjamin Robbins Curtis

In Cooley v. Board of Wardens, Curtis enunciated an enduring principle concerning the commerce clause of the Constitution. Prior to

Cooley, the Supreme Court had failed to resolve the issue of state power to regulate interstate commerce. In his majority opinion, Curtis held that the Commerce Clause did not automatically bar all state regulation in this field. At issue in this case was the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania law requiring ships entering or leaving the port of Philadelphia to hire local harbor pilots. Although this was a regulation of inter-state commerce, Curtis upheld the law. He reasoned that the term commerce covered many topics, some requiring national uniformity, others calling for diversity of local control. The distinction between local and national aspects of interstate commerce was a major contribution to constitutional interpretation. Cooley is regarded as one of the most significant Commerce Clause cases of the nineteenth century.

Curtis left the Supreme Court shortly after the Dred Scott decision. The decision so polarized the Court that Curtis did not feel comfortable serving with the other members. He returned to Boston and resumed his law practice.

Curtis was pulled back into the national arena in 1868, when he served as defense counsel at the impeachment trial of President andrew johnson. He made a lasting contribution to the theory of impeachment by convincing the Senate that impeachment is a judicial trial, not a political proceeding. This meant that impeachment required evidence of misconduct rather than a finding of no-confidence in the president.

As an author, Curtis gained prominence for his publications Reports of Cases in the Circuit Courts of the United States (1854), Digest of the Decisions of the Supreme Court (1856), and his posthumously published Memoirs (1879).

Curtis died on September 15, 1874.

further readings

Curtis, Benjamin R., ed. 2002. A Memoir of Benjamin Robbins Curtis, LL.D.: With Some of His Professional and Miscellaneous Writing. Union, N.J: Lawbook Exchange.

Maltz, Earl M. 1996. "The Unlikely Hero of Dred Scott: Benjamin Robbins Curtis and the Constitutional Law of Slavery." Cardozo Law Review 17 (May).

Benjamin Robbins Curtis

views updated Jun 11 2018

Benjamin Robbins Curtis

Benjamin Robbins Curtis (1809-1874) was one of the most able lawyers on the U.S. Supreme Court in the 19th century.

Benjamin Robbins Curtis was born into an old New England family in Watertown, Mass., on Nov. 4, 1809. He graduated second in his class at Harvard in 1829, then took a degree from Harvard Law School. In 1833 he married Eliza Maria Woodward, with whom he had five children. When she died in 1844, he married again and had three more children.

Through the influence of a prominent uncle, Curtis became a partner in a Boston law firm in 1834, remaining until 1851 and becoming one of the leading commercial lawyers in the United States. He was elected to the Massachusetts General Court in 1849 and 1851 and was largely responsible for the Massachusetts Practice Act of 1851, which eliminated many legal abuses. When what was then the New England seat on the U.S. Supreme Court became vacant in 1851, President Millard Fillmore appointed Curtis.

In his first term Curtis's ability to cut to the heart of a problem led to establishing a commonsense interpretation of the commerce clause in Cooley v. Board of Wardens, which allowed states to regulate local commercial matters while not diminishing Congress's power. Another precedent-setting case enabled administrative officers to determine and collect debts without a court order. He was also highly effective in conference, "educating" by persuasion his fellow justices.

Riding the New England circuit, Curtis continued to show concern for law and order and preservation of the Union. Though labeled a "slave-catcher judge" because of his strict enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, he dissented on the precedent-setting Dred Scott case (1852) and wrote a long minority opinion demonstrating that African Americans were U.S. citizens in 1787, that residence in free territory made a man free, and that Congress had complete authority to legislate for the territories, including prohibiting slavery. Misunderstandings with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney over dissemination of these opinions were partly responsible for Curtis's resignation from the Court.

Returning to a lucrative private practice, Curtis argued several important cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. When his second wife died in 1860, he married again. He supported the North in the Civil War but raised important questions about presidential power in a pamphlet critical of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and of suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. He opposed Lincoln's reelection in 1864. When President Andrew Johnson was impeached, Curtis and William M. Evarts defended him before the Senate.

In 1874 Curtis suffered a brain hemorrhage and died at Newport, R.I., on September 15. His course of lectures at Harvard for 1872-1873, Jurisdiction, Practice and Peculiar Jurisprudence of the Courts of the United States, was published in 1880.

Further Reading

There is no modern biography of Curtis. A eulogistic memoir by his brother and a volume of his writings edited by his son were published as A Memoir of Benjamin Robbins Curtis, L.L.D., with Some of His Professional and Miscellaneous Writings (2 vols., 1879; repr. 1969). Vincent C. Hopkins, Dred Scott's Case (1951), details Curtis's role in that case. His Court career appears in Leo Pfeffer, This Honorable Court: A History of the United States Supreme Court (1965). □

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