Curtis was the major dissenting voice in Scott v. Sandford (1857), although he had a reputation as a supporter of slavery. He served as chief counsel defending President Andrew Johnson at his impeachment trial.
When Curtis was a child, his father, an officer in the merchant marines, died, and his widowed mother operated a store and circulating library to send her son to Harvard. Curtis graduated in 1829 and attended Harvard Law School but left to practice law. Gradually gaining respect as a lawyer, Curtis turned to politics and was elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1849. A dedicated Whig and supporter of Daniel Webster, Curtis was chosen by President Millard Fillmore to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court in 1851. While on the Court, Curtis usually agreed with the majority, although he was a New England Whig among many southern Democrats.
Benjamin R. Curtis
In Cooley v. Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia (1852),
In 1855 Curtis wrote for a unanimous Court in Murray’s Lessee v. Hoboken Land and Improvement Co.,
Curtis is best remembered for his dissenting opinion in the case of Scott v. Sandford (1857). Dred Scott, a slave, had accompanied his surgeon-owner to posts in Illinois and the Minnesota territory. Upon the surgeon’s death, Scott maintained that his residency in free lands entitled him to freedom. The Court decided against Scott. The case caused controversy as groups debated the issue of slavery,
Curtis had a reputation as a supporter of slavery or at least as a defender of the status quo to avoid quarreling among the states. His previous decisions had been instrumental in returning runaways to slavery. However, in the Scott case, Curtis dissented vehemently from the majority opinion, and his reputation gave added weight to his words. He rejected the majority opinion that African Americans were not citizens because in 1787 they were considered citizens eligible to vote in five states, and citizens of states are also citizens of the United States. Curtis added that a slave who had lived in a free territory was entitled to freedom. Relations with the rest of the justices immediately became strained, and Curtis resigned.
When President Andrew Johnson faced impeachment proceedings in 1868, Curtis served as his chief counsel, providing logical, lucid arguments instrumental in Johnson’s acquittal.
Curtis turned down offers of political appointments, continued his law practice, and taught at Harvard until his death.
Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004. Fehrenbacher, Don E. Slavery, Law, and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997. Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
Cooley v. Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia
Murray’s Lessee v. Hoboken Land and Improvement Co.
Scott v. Sandford