The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions - Vol. 2

By Leon Friedman; Fred L. Israel | Go to book overview
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urgent question to a speedy decision. In fact, Stanton had so advised the President at the time of the passage of the act, because he contended that the act was flagrantly unconstitutional and strongly urged Johnson to veto it.

The thrust of Curtis' argument was not as acute as the defense presented by William M. Evarts, but it was equally sound. Both demolished the relevancy of the Tenure of Office Act and then went on to show that the irresponsible impeachment charges had been built only upon the rotten foundation of the act itself. Curtis did not stay for the entire trial, but he helped to bring in the verdict of not guilty. Clearly, the radicals had overplayed their hand, but only a presidential weakling would have allowed matters to reach such a point in the first place. Curtis performed then as notable a public service in defending Johnson in 1868 as in 1857 when he dissented from Taney's opinion in the Dred Scott case to argue on behalf of national power and black rights. For services rendered, a grateful President Johnson offered Curtis the Attorney Generalship, but Curtis, having had enough of Washington politics, refused.

After the impeachment trial, Curtis characteristically threw himself once again into the practice of law, but his health broke down. Trying to regain his strength, he traveled to Europe during 1871. Upon his return, he resumed full activity with his health only partially recovered. Then, when his oldest daughter died in February, 1874, he became greatly depressed. During this twilight period Massachusetts Democrats paid Curtis a great compliment, when in March, 1874, they almost elected him to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy created by the death of his old opponent, Charles Sumner. After a brain hemorrhage, Curtis himself died on September 15, 1874, at the age of nearly sixty-five. The press reported his death with particular attention and his obituaries were as generous as they were extensive. A great jurist was gone and sorely missed.


The Curtis papers are located at the American Antiquarian Society and the Library of Congress. Curtis brilliantly edited Reports of Cases in the Circuit Courts of the United States (2 vols; Boston, 1854), and Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States (22 vols; Boston, 1856). In Benjamin R. Curtis, ed., Life and Writings of Benjamin Robbins Curtis (2 vols; Boston, 1879), his brother, George Ticknor Curtis, compiled a rambling memoir in the first volume but included a great number of letters and opinions, along with a listing of cases argued and opinions rendered. In the second volume, his son, Benjamin R. Curtis, Jr., edited miscellaneous writings and speeches, including the famous works on state debts, executive power, Chief Justice Taney, and the defense of President Andrew Johnson. The best study of Curtis available is by Richard H. Leach , Benjamin R. Curtis: Case Study of a Supreme Court Justice (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Princeton University, 1951)


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