« ForrigeFortsett »
BENJAMIN ROBBINS CURTIS.
The Bar of the Supreme Court of the United the administration of justice and attracted the States met in the court room in the Capitol, on attention of the profession and of the public. Monday, October 12th, at 12 o'clock M., to pay Resolved, That we commemorate with no less respect to the memory of the late Benjamin R. satisfaction and applause the moral qualities Curtis.
which illustrate the whole professional service On motion the Hon. John A. Campbell of our deceased brother-his justice to all, his was appointed Chairman, and D. W. MIDDLE- kindness to associates, his fidelity to the courts TON, Clerk of the Court, Secretary.
and to the law, his scrupulous contribution of On motion of Hon. P. Phillips, the chair his best powers and his complete attention to appointed the following Committee on Resolu- every cause whose advocacy he assumed-his tions, viz.: Reverdy Johnson, Philip Phillips, resolute maintenance of the just limits which William M. Evarts, Benjamin H. Bristow, separate the duties of an advocate and the duGeorge H. Williams, John A. J. Cresswell, ties of an adviser and of a declarer of the law Richard T. Merrick, T. D. Lincoln and R. M. upon professional opinions-his fidelity to soCorwine.
ciety, to government, to religion, to truth-all The committee, through its chairman, report these traits of duty, as the rule of his life, we ed the following resolutions :
present to the living lawyers and to their sucTHE BAR OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE cessors for their sincerest homage. UNITED STATES, assembled upon occasion of the Resolved, That the Attorney-General be redeath of their brother CURTIS, in testimony of quested to present these resolutions to the Sutheir great affection and esteem for him in life, preme Court, and to move, in our behalf, that and of their sense of the great loss which the they be entered upon its minutes; and that the courts and the bar of the whole country and the chairman of this meeting be requested to forcommunity at large suffer in his death, adopt ward a copy of them to the family of our dethe following resolutions :
ceased brother: Resolved, That we find in the professional Which resolutions were unanimously adopted. life, labors and honors of Benjamin Robbins After the reading of the resolutions, Mr. Curtis, as displayed in an elevated and ex- Reverdy Johnson said: tended career of judicial and forensic duty and MR. CHAIRMAN: Before moving, as I prodistinction, the imposing traits and qualities of pose to do, the adoption of the report of the intellect and character which, in concurrence, committee, I beg leave to trespass for a few momake up the true and permanent fame among ments upon the time of the meeting. The event men of a great lawyer and a great judge. which has brought us together was a severe blow
Resolved, That the example presented by his upon the heart of the entire profession. Of the life, of great natural powers faithfully disci- many bereavements which we have had heretoplined and completely developed, expanded by fore to deplore, no one has given us more sin. large acquirements, and kept vigorous and alert cere sorrow than the death of BENJAMIN R. by strenuous exercise, applied to noble uses, CURTIS. In all respects he was a man to be and effecting illustrious results upon a conspic- loved and admired. As a friend he was warm uous theater of action and in manifold and di- and sincere; as a lawyer, learned and accomversified opportunities of public service and of plished; as a judge, of transcendent ability. To public notice, is rare among lawyers as among those who knew him intimately (and I am of men, and furnishes a just and assured title to that number) his death is a great personal afpermanent renown in the memory of his coun-fliction. trymen.
My acquaintance with him commenced when, Resolved, That in the special qualities which in 1851, upon the recommendation of Mr. Webmark him as a consummate forensic advocate ster, he became one of the Associate Justices of and as an authoritative judge, the structure of the Supreme Court, and this acquaintance soon Mr. CURTIS' mind and its disclipine combined ripened into a close friendship which continued the widest and most circumspect comprehen- unbroken to the last. And having been a very sion of all facts of legal import, however multi constant attendant on the court for the last six tudinous; a luminous and penetrating insight years of his conn'ction with it, and during the into the intricacies and obscurities of the most seventeen years that have elapsed since his rescomplex relations; and an efficacious power of ignation, when, at every session, he appeared reason, which produced the many admirable ex 18 counsel, I was afforded.the best opportunity hibitions of his faculties at the Bar and on the of forming an opinion of him as judge and lawBench, which for forty-two years have served | yer. I think, therefore, that I have a just esti
mate of him in both characters. As a judge of Mr. Johnson was followed by Mr. R. T. this high tribunal, it is impossible to imagine Merrick, who said: one who could be more fully competent to dis- MR. CHAIRMAN: Few men in any age, either charge its high and arduous duties. With a in this country or in England, have so faithfully wealth of learning always adequate to the 'oc- illustrated the power, dignity and honor of the casion he was ever felicitous in his application legal profession as MR. CURTIS. of it to the case before him. His judicial opin- His learning was profound and copious; his ions—indeed, all of them-were models of a cor: mind clear, earnest and powerful, and all his rect style. It may with perfect truth be said faculties were severely disciplined. of them, what, upon an occasion like the pres- His arguments at this bar, probably the most ent, he said of the opinions of the late pure and perfect models of forensic debate known to the great judge, Chief Justice Taney, that they profession, rested upon the fundamental prinwere characterized “by purity of style and ciples of the science of law applied and anclearness of thought.” His arguments at the alyzed by deep but seemingly easy thought, and bar possessed equally sterling merit. The state-enforced by a logic whose severe features were ment of his case, and the points which it in- never disfigured by enfeebling ornament. An volved, were always transparently perspicuous. appreciative listener could not refuse to follow And when his premises were conceded or estab- him in his course of reasoning, for his state. lished, his conclusion was a necessary sequence. ment of his case was so plain, simple and perHis analytical and logical powers were remark. suasive, that it commanded attention to the able. In these respects, speaking from the fuller development of his propositions. Howknowledge of the great men whom I have heard ever voluminous the record or complicated the during a very long professional life, I think he nature of the case, a statement easy, clear and was never surpassed. And his manner of speak- concise, though full and comprehensive, dising was excellent. He ever suited "the action closed at once the exact questions at issue, and to the word, the word to the action," and never deeply impressed upon all who heard him the overstepped "the modesty of nature.” He was convictions in the mind of the advocate. When, always calm, dignified and impressive, and, in that great trial in which the President of therefore, persuasive. No lawyer who heard the Republic was arraigned before its Senate, him begin an argument ever failed to remain sitting as a High Court of Impeachment, Mr. until he had concluded. Were I to select in- Curtis had concluded his opening statement stances as exhibiting his highest judicial excel for the defense, there was-nothing left of the lence and his highest forensic ability, I would case. point, for the one, to his dissenting opinion in His convictions were ardent, hearty and earwhat is known as the “Dred Scott case," and nest, and he clung to them with a firmness and for the other, to his opening argument in the tenacity that nothing could affect save only defense of President Johnson in the Impeach- the proof that they were erroneous. ment. Trial. Able as was the opinion of the In the dark hours of our national trouble his majority of the court in that case, delivered by voice was heard above the tempest of loosened Chief Justice Taney, it was admitted at the passions vindicating the supremacy of law; and time, I believe, by most of the profession, that when the clash of arms had ceased but the the dissenting opinion of Judge Curtis was storm still raged, he poured forth in this hall equally powerful." Lawyers may differ, as they his appeal in behalf of a calm and considerate have differed, as to which of these two emi justice which should bear no sign of wrath or nent men were right, but they will all con passion. cede that the view of each was maintained with The death of such a man is a severe loss to extraordinary ability, whilst those who knew the country as well as the profession. them both will never differ as to the sincerity I did not rise for the purpose of pronouncing of their respective convictions.
a eulogy on MR. CURTIS--that I leave to others As to the other—his defense of President --but only to gratify a demand of my own feelJohnson-having listened to it, and having | ing. I knew him well and was honored by his more than once read it carefully, I think I am friendship and a reasonable share of his confijustified in saying that it covered every ques. dence. I have listened to him with instruction tion which the case involved, and, although it and delight in public, and been greatly benewas afterwards enforced by his able associates, fited by his counsels in private; and as I adit of itself greatly contributed to the defeat of mired and loved him in life, I would place upon the impeachment. Nothing could have exceeded his grave a humble tribute of respect for his the clearness of statement, the knowledge per memory. tinent to the contest, or the power of reasoning The Hon. John A. Campbell, Chairman, by which he maintained his conclusions. It was, then addressed the meeting as follows: I believe, and, having been one of the judges, A natural sorrow exists in the judicial tribuI think I know, generally thought to be fatal nals and among the legal profession of the to the prosecution. When such a man, lawyer Union by the event of the death of the late Jusand judge, in the inscrutable dispensation of tice Curtis. Providence, is taken from the profession, they His connection with the distribution of that cannot avoid feeling that it is not only a pri- 1 justice which constitutions and laws define and vate but a public calamity. And it is due to regulate during a period of eventful history, has his memory that we should express the sense of been so intimate, so useful to the country, and our loss and the great regard we entertained for so honorable to himself and to his profession, · 'him as a man, a lawyer, and a judge. And this that its severance occasions a pause and is felt will be accomplished by adopting the report of as a calamity. To form and to maintain this the committee. I, therefore, move its adop- connection was the aim of his life, the cher: tion.
ished and continuing aspiration of a mind and
charaeter well composed. To the members of vacancy was supplied by one recommended by the same profession, such a life, such a mind, the Justices—Justices Catron and Curtis bearsuch a character are objects of particular inter- ing their recommendation to the President. est. His aspirations were favored in his birth- The Reports of Howard disclose that during place, by his education and by his associations. his judicial term he was generally in accord The history of Massachusetts just before the with the majority of the court. He did not disRevolution, during the Revolution, and until sent often, and his dissent was usually with a the time that Justice CUBTis received his im- large minority-rarely, if eyer, did he stand pressions and impulse, was determined in a alone. They show that in some of the most imgreat measure by its legal profession. During portant cases, he prepared táë opinions of the that period its courts were occupied by men of court. That these opinions embraced intricate extraordinary endowments, and of large and lib- questions of constitutional law, of admiralty ju. eral culture in law, jurisprudence, philosophy, risdiction, of commercial law, of the law of patscience and literature. The profession of the ents, of common and equity law. The range of law was not misdescribed by the term of a his professional experience in Massachusetts had learned profession. Dane and Parsons and Dex been wide and comprehensive His professional ter; Otis and Story and Wilde; Parker and studies had embraced the principies of law and Shaw, had stamped their names and characters the understanding of jurisprudence, and the upon it. The competitors that Justice CURTIS court rested with confidence upon his ability to had to encounter were Webster, Choate, Loring, expound principle and procedure. The opinBartlett and others, whose impulses were the ions show elaboration, a mastery of facts, ausame as his own. The scrutiny his arguments thorities and arguments, and å skillful emhad to experience was that of Story, Parker, ployment of precise and accurate statement and Shaw, Wilde, Putnam, Dewey, Metcalf, Sprague. discussion. But these Reports exhibit an im.
His first conviction must have been that, to perfect history of the duties actually performed. consummate his purpose, he must need to The duties of the Justices of the Supreme
Court consist in the hearing of cases; the “Pitch his project high ; sink not lo spirit."
arations for the consultations; the consultations His first counsel to himself,
in the conference of the judges; the decision
of the cause there, and the preparation of the "Let thy mind still be bent, still plodding where; opinion and the judgment of the court. Their
most arduous and responsible duty is in the After twenty years of labor on this "project” conference. and under this counsel, in 1851 he was selected, It was here that the merits of Justice CUBTIS as was the report of that day, by Mr. Webster, were most conspicuous to his associates. The as the fittest person to fill the vacancy, occa- Chief Justice presided, the deliberations were sioned by the death of Justice Woodbury, in the usually frank and candid. It was a rare inci: Supreme Court of the United States. Mr. Web-dent in the whole of this period, the slightest ster said he wanted a full term of lifelong servo disturbance from irritation, excitement, passion ice. He called for Justice CURTIS in the me- or impatience. There was habitually courtesy, ridian of professional life. The appointment good breeding, self-control, mutual deference. came to Justice CURTIS. He was not required in Judge CURTIS, invariably so; there was nothto pursue it or to beseech it. It came to him by ing of cabal, combination, or exorbitant desire a divine right as the fittest.
to carry questions or cases. Their aims were At the time the court was presided over by honorable and all the arts employed to attain Chief Justice Taney, who had established, to them were manly arts. The venerable age of the acknowledgment of all, that his commission the Chief Justice, his gentleness, refinement, was held by the same title. He was then sev and feminine sense of propriety, were felt and enty-three years of age, bowed by years and in realized in the privacy and confidence of these firmity of constitution. In the administration consultations. None felt them more, none has of the order and procedure of the court there described them so well as Justice Curtis has was dignity, firmness, stability, exactitude, and done in his graceful tribute to our illustrious with these benignity, gentleness, grace, and Chief Justice since his death, in the Circuit right coming. The casual visitor acknowledged Court of the United States, in Boston. that it was the most majestic tribunal of the In these conferences, the Chief Justice usualUnion, and that the Chief Justice was the fit- ly called the case. He stated the pleadings and test to pronounce in it the oracles of justice. facts that they presented, the arguments and
Justice CURTIS at the same time met seven his conclusions in regard to them, and invited associates—Justices McLean, Wayne, Catron, discussion. The discussion was free and open McKinley, Daniel, Nelson and Grier.
among the Justices till all were satisfied. All of these had passed the meridian of ordi- The question was put, whether the judgment nary life before their junior associate had come or decree should be reversed, and each Justice, to the bar. There was much stateliness in their according to his precedence, commencing with appearance, and, with diversities of character, the junior judge, was required to give his judgeducation, discipline, attainments and experiment and his reasons for his conclusion. The ence, all of them had passed through a career concurring opinions of the majority decided the of honorable service, were men of strong reso- cause and signified the matter of the opinion to lution, large grasp of mind, and of honorable be given. The Chief Justice designated the purpose. The reception of Justice Curtis judge to prepare it. Justice CURTIS always was cordial and hospitable, and with all of came to the conference with full cognizance of these his judicial career commenced and ter. the case, the pleadings, facts, questions, arguminated with a single exception. The death ments, authorities. He participated in the disof Justice McKinley made a vacancy, and that cussions. His opinion was carefully meditated.
He delivered it with gravity, and uniformly it was compact, clear, searching, and free from all that was irrelevant, impertinent, or extrinsic. As a matter of course, it was weighty in the deliberations of the court. The older judges spoke of this period with great satisfaction. Justice Nelson, in a letter written within the last year, said to me that it was the happiest period of his judicial life, and alludes affectionately to the share of Justice CURTIS in these proceedings. The Chief Justice so regarded it. The reverence of the junior Justices was gratefully felt and recognized by him.
The last event at the spring term of the year 1857, was the delivery of the dissenting opinion of Justice CURTIS, in the case of Dred Scott.
The court adjourned then, and it proved to be the last event in the judicial career of Justice CURTIS. I have never supposed that his resignation had any connection with that or any other occurrence in the court. There was nothing in the deliberations in that cause to distinguish it from any other. Upon the argument in 1856, it was found there was a diversity of opinion upon the matter proper to be decided. A plea in abatement to the jurisdiction, which presented the capacity of a person of African descent to be a citizen, had been demurred to and the plea rejected. There was trial and judgment for the defendant, declaring the plaintiff to be a slave.
The question was: could he insist upon an error in the sustaining of his own demurrer after trial and judgment?
At that term, Chief Justice Taney, Justices Wayne, Daniel, Nelson and CURTIS, held the affirmative and constituted a majority. A reargument was ordered, and at the next term, Justices McLean, Catron, Nelson, Grier and Campbell held the negative. Justice Nelson doubted at the first argument, and moved for a re-argument, and upon that joined the minority, and so the plea in abatement and the questions arising upon it in the opinion of the majority of the court were not before the court. The case, as reported in 19 Howard, S. C. R., discloses that each member of this majority held to this opinion, and that neither of them in their separate or concurring opinions examined the merits of the plea or passed an opinion on it.
The same report shows that each member of this minority did examine the plea and recorded their opinion of it. It was agreed at a day in the term that the questions should be considered and each Justice might deal with them as his judgment dictated. The abstinence of a portion of the court on the one side, and the discussion by the others, was regulated by their own opinion as before expressed. And the facts being understood, no censure was deserved by any. My belief is, that Justice CURTIS misconceived the facts and supposed a portion of the court had concurred in deciding a case which they had before determined was not before the court. I make this statement in justice to him as well as to my other brethren. The statement I make is confirmed by Justice Nelson in a letter of his published by the biographer of the Chief Justice. In respect to the merits of the respective opinions, I have no design to say a word. They are marked with great ability, and are an honor to the court which was able to produce them. They will be considered here
after as a link in the chain of historical events, and justice will be done to all parties connected with them.
I am not aware that there was any hostility or unkindness felt or expressed to Justice CURTIS by those who did not concur with him. I can speak positively as to some, and shall speak as to myself. Our relations have been cordial and kindly. He informed me by letter of his resignation. I expressed to him my sincere regret for the occurrence, and I testified to the admiration and respect I bore for his ability and integrity and usefulness in the court. These relations remained undisturbed by time, distance, the corroding effects of sectional strife and civil war, until the hour of his lamented death. My personal intercourse with Justice CURTIS after his resignation was limited, and I had but little contact with his subsequent professional life. During the period of his connection with the court, his ambition seemed to be to associate his name honorably and permanently with the administration of justice in this country, and for this end he sought to understand the whole science of law and procedure, and to have a clear conception of a legitimate internal policy for the Union. His ambition imposed a necessity for labor, continual improvement, habitual intercourse with judicial and public administration, and the discussion of constitutional and legal questions, and oversight and counsel in the affairs of individuals and communities.
To reach the eminence to which he aspired and to which he attained he must have realized to himself
"This life of mine,
Must be lived out, and a grave thoroughly earned.” His plan was pursued with constancy, and the lives of few show more consistency and symmetry. The prizes of ambition he accepted were within the scope of this aim; those he relinquished or neglected were inconsonant. His tasks of real life were determined, and to these tasks he confined his appointed work. In his course he found that the justice a state or a nation can distribute bears a small proportion to the demands of society for justice.
He found, likewise, that justice, though the chief, is not the only virtue-that it is the ministry to reason and the master of human action, but is not all of humanity.
So, in his onward progress to the goal he had set before him, besides virtue and knowledge, public reputation for incorrupt integrity, large and useful endowments of mind, influence with courts and tribunals, he also acquired faith, knowledge of religion, and entered into a close communion with his God; and thereby he earned his grave and his rest from his labors.
The tribute which the courts and the members of the legal profession from different States have willingly rendered to his memory, expresses to his family, to his friends, and to the country that "Blessings are on the head of the just."
The resolutions were thereupon unanimously adopted, and the meeting adjourned.
Mr. Attorney-General Williams moved the court that these proceedings be entered of record on the minutes of the term, and made the following remarks:
MAY IT PLEASE THE COURT: BENJAMIN R.
CURTIS, formerly an Associate Justice of this court, and one of the most distinguished members of its bar, departed this life on the 15th day of last month; and his professional associates here, feeling like a family bereft of its head, have expressed the sense of their bereavement in fitting resolutions; which, at their request, I have now the honor to present to the court. Our deceased grother was born at Watertown, Mass., in the year 1809, and came down to his trave with all his faculties unimpaired by decay or the infirmities of age.
I can only speak of Judge CURTIS as a lawyer, and those who knew him in that capacity will not, I am sure, charge me with exaggeration in saying that all that has been said of the ablest and best of our profession may with fitness be applied to him. I was a member of the High Court of Impeachment when the President of the United States was put upon his trial before that body; and had, therefore, an excellent opportunity to see and hear the deceased, who was the leading counsel for the defense in that case. The late Chief Justice presided. Senators and Representatives occupied the floor of the Senate, and distinguished people from all parts of the world filled its galleries. The political pulses of the nation throbbed with intense anxiety. The scene was thrilling and historic. And when the prosecutors had submitted their evidence in support of the articles of impeachment, Judge CURTIS followed with a statement of the respondent's defense. I was greatly impressed with his presence. When he arose to speak, he seemed to be the personification of solidity and strength. Added to his striking features and form he had a peculiarly firm and broad way of standing while he spoke which seemed to express an inflexible determination not to be moved from his positions. He was not excited or embarrassed. He commenced with the composure of conscious power. He presented the facts end points of the case in such a comprehensive, compact and logical manner, as to make the speech a model of forensic discussion. Brougham or Burke would have displayed upon that occasion a wealth of imagery and illustration; but the language of Judge CURTIS was as pure and chaste as the lectures of Blackstone.
I will not venture to say that our departed brother was the equal of Webster; but it is safe, I think, to assert that he was more like Webster than any man who has of late years, if ever, appeared in this court. Some one has said of Lord Mansfield, that his statement of the facts of a case was worth the argument of any other man; and few gentlemen will feel disparaged, I presume, if this remark is made applicable to Judge CURTIS.
His eminence as a Justice of this court has been universally acknowledged. His opinions indicate an enlightened and conscientious judgment. Masterly expositions of constitutional law have been given from time to time by the great Judges of this court; but none ever delivered here was more exhaustive in its learning, or far reaching in its results, than his dissenting opinion in the Dred Scott case. Chief Justice Taney and his Associates, excepting CURTIS and McLean, labored with great ability to make color a constitutional criterion of American cit
izenship; But Justice CURTIS, with a broader
appreciation of the true principles of our government, affirmed that the free native-born citizens of each State are citizens of the United States; and on account of the overwhelming force with which he made the reason and justice of this declaration to appear, the contrary opinion of the court has been without any considerable weight or influence. Civil war has since followed upon this and cognate questions; but it yet remains for this court to define the rights, immunities and privileges of citizens of the United States, and to determine to what degree of protection, as such citizens, they are entitled from the Government of the United States.
Our deceased friend was not distinguished in the political world. He was never drawn into the vortex of partisan strife by the prospect of official honors. His ambition was to be a great and successful lawyer. Seventeen years ago he gave up his exalted position upon the Bench of this court to resume the practice of his profession, and since then he has hardly been equalled in the number and variety of the great causes in which he has appeared.
His solid and massive intellect was enriched by acquisitions from every branch of jurisprudence. He argued questions as to the functions of government, the construction of statutes, and the doctrines of the unwritten law, with an equal fullness of learning and profoundness of thought. There were no fanciful quotations or pomp of words about his speeches. They were as plain and simple as they could be. This is the highest style of speaking at the bar. Weakness of argumentative power, as often as otherwise, displays itself in turgid and showy declamation; but to make each word a necessary link in a chain of logic, that draws and binds the judgment of the hearer to the conclusion of him who speaks, is the work of a master mind, and in this Judge CURTIS excelled. Few cases come before this court in which there is not a great variety of debatable points, some vital and others incidental to the controversy, and very often all of these are discussed as though there was no difference in their value; but, in addition to his other fine faculties, Judge CURTIS had the power to detect and eliminate from a case its decisive issues, and with these alone he occupied the time of the court.
I would not seek vainly to pour flattery into the "dull, cold ear of death," or seem to praise one who is dead, as though he had none of the infirmities of human nature; but, leaving out of view his personal, domestic and social qualities and habits (of which I know little or nothing) and judging only from his professional character, I feel at liberty to say that, as nearly as anyone I ever knew, he filled the measure of a perfect lawyer. When an intellect so highly gifted by nature, and so developed and invigorated by discipline and culture, is extinguished, society, as well as friends, suffer a great loss. The Bench and the Bar are stricken with a real sorrow.
Our sad duties to-day forcibly remind us of the brevity of human life. All those who with Judge CURTIS occupied the seats now filled by Your Honors are, with one exception, dead; but they are not forgotten and will not be so long as in this supreme tribunal of justice questions relating to the powers of government, the rela