Benjamin R. Curtis

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Benjamin Robbins Curtis
Benjamin Curtis.jpg
Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: September 22, 1851 – September 30, 1857
Nominator Millard Fillmore
Predecessor Levi Woodbury
Successor Nathan Clifford
Party Whig, Republican
Religion Unitarian, then Episcopalian

Benjamin Robbins Curtis (November 4, 1809 – September 15, 1874) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He is known for his dissent in Dred Scott v. Sanford - where the majority on the Court rule, amongst other things, that African Americans could not be citizens under the Constitution. Curtis disagreed, writing, "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."[1]

Early life

Benjamin Robbins Curtis was born in Watertown, Massachusetts on November 4, 1809. His father was Captain Benjamin Curtis, master of a vessel trading between Boston and Valparaiso. His mother was Lois Robbins of Watertown.[2]

He entered Harvard College in 1825 and in September 1829, he entered the Law School at Cambridge. At the same time, he received an appointment to the office of Proctor in the University.


In 1831, he left the Law School, and entered the office of John Nevers at Northfield, with the intention of making that place his permanent residence. In April, 1832, he returned to Cambridge to pass a few months at the Law School, especially for the purpose of attending the lectures of Judge Story ; and, in the autumn of that year, he was admitted as Attorney of the Common Pleas in Franklin Count jr, and immediately established himself in Northfield. In October, 1834, he removed to Boston, formed a connection in professional business with Charles P. Curtis, Esq., and was admitted a member of the Suffolk bar. He soon acquired a large practice, and within a few years took a high rank among the most distinguished members of the profession. In February, 1846, his election by the Corporation as a Fellow of Harvard University was unanimously confirmed by the Board of Overseers.[2]


He was a member of the Massachusetts State House of Representatives for a short period in 1851. In the autumn of 1851, Mr. Curtis was commissioned by President Fillmore for a position as one of the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, and took the official oath, administered by District Judge Sprague, Friday, October 10th, 1851.

After the Dred Scott ruling, Curtis resigned from the Supreme Court.[2]

Return to private practice

After resigning his seat upon the Supreme Bench, Mr. Curtis opened an office in Boston, and resumed the practice of the law, to which he devoted himself during the remainder of his life, having a large amount of business, and being often consulted in cases and upon questions of the greatest importance.[2]

In 1868, Mr. Curtis was one of five of the ablest members of the American bar who acted as counsel for Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, in the trial of the articles of impeachment brought against him by the House of Representatives, the Senate of the United States sitting as a court of judgment, with Chief Justice Chase as the presiding officer.


In 1871, Mr. Curtis's health, which for two or three years had been less vigorous than before, began perceptibly to fail; nevertheless, he continued to work hard, and engaged in many weighty and difficult cases. Early in the summer of 1874, he went to Newport, R. I., to seek the rest and refreshment which he so much needed; but it was too late for relaxation from labor and the reviving air to recruit his exhausted strength. He gradually became more ill, until in July he was seized with a complicated disorder, and he passed away on September 15th, 1874.[2]


  • "When a strict interpretation of the Constitution, according to the fixed rules which govern the interpretation of laws, is abandoned, and the theoretical opinions of individuals are allowed to control its meaning, we have no longer a Constitution; we are under the government of individual men, who for the time being have power to declare what the Constitution is, according to their own views of what it ought to mean." - Dissent, Dred Scott v. Sandford


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