Justice Curtis in the Civil War Era: At the Crossroads of American Constitutionalism

Justice Curtis in the Civil War Era: At the Crossroads of American Constitutionalism

by Stuart Streichler
     
 

During a career as both a lawyer and a Supreme Court justice, Benjamin R. Curtis addressed practically every major constitutional question of the mid-nineteenth century, making judgments that still resonate in American law. Aside from a family memoir written by his brother over one hundred years ago, however, no book-length treatment of Curtis exists. Now Stuart

Overview

During a career as both a lawyer and a Supreme Court justice, Benjamin R. Curtis addressed practically every major constitutional question of the mid-nineteenth century, making judgments that still resonate in American law. Aside from a family memoir written by his brother over one hundred years ago, however, no book-length treatment of Curtis exists. Now Stuart Streichler has filled this gap in judicial biography, using Curtis’s life and work as a window on the most serious constitutional crisis in American history, the Civil War.

Curtis was the lead attorney for President Andrew Johnson in the Senate’s impeachment trial, where he delivered the pivotal argument, and his was an influential voice in the pervasive constitutional struggle between states and the federal government. He is best remembered, however, for dissenting in the Dred Scott case, in which he disputed Chief Justice Taney’s proslavery ruling that no black person could ever become a citizen of the United States. In the wake of the decision, Curtis resigned from the court, the only justice in the Supreme Court’s history to do so on grounds of principle. Yet he also clashed with Boston’s abolitionists over enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, and he opposed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In a period when the Constitution was radically transformed from a charter that protected slavery to one that granted all persons equal rights of citizenship, Justice Curtis maintained his faith in the Constitution as an adaptable instrument of self-government and tried to mark out a path for gradual change. Streichler assesses Curtis’s common-law methods in the context of his divisive times and shows how the judge’s views continue to shed light on issues that have become once again relevant, such as the presidential impeachment process and, after 9/11, the use of military tribunals to try civilians.

Editorial Reviews

H-Net Reviews in the Humanities & Social Sciences - H. Robert Baker
A graceful and rewarding study of jurisprudence-in-action, making this one of those rare books that sits comfortably both in the research library and on the nightstand.... A fascinating story. Streichler'sprose is fluid, and he is particularly deft at explaining difficult legal concepts in plain English. Anyone wishing to understand more about the transforming power of the Civil War era on American constitutional thought and practice will benefit from reading this book..... A first-rate work on an important figure.

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly - Robert J. Muldoon
An excellent book. Professor Streichler writes with a clarity and occasional wit not always found in academics' prose.

Civil War Book Review - Michael C. Berheide
Clear and engaging writing style.... A remarkable grasp of the meaning and the implications of Curtis' own work.

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society - Keith E. Whittington
Stuart Streichler has now provided a comprehensive, readable, and sympathetic biography of Justice Curtis that masterfully fills that gap and hopefully will bring new attention to this important nineteenth-century figure. Although best remembered for his famous dissent in Dred Scott, Curtis had a long and complicated career debating the meaning and implications of the Constitution, and Streichler provides a welcome introduction to those debates and Curtis's role in them.

H-Net Reviews in the Humanities & Social Sciences
A graceful and rewarding study of jurisprudence-in-action, making this one of those rare books that sits comfortably both in the research library and on the nightstand.... A fascinating story. Streichler'sprose is fluid, and he is particularly deft at explaining difficult legal concepts in plain English. Anyone wishing to understand more about the transforming power of the Civil War era on American constitutional thought and practice will benefit from reading this book..... A first-rate work on an important figure.

— H. Robert Baker

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly
An excellent book. Professor Streichler writes with a clarity and occasional wit not always found in academics' prose.

— Robert J. Muldoon, Jr.

Civil War Book Review
Clear and engaging writing style.... A remarkable grasp of the meaning and the implications of Curtis' own work.

— Michael C. Berheide

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
Stuart Streichler has now provided a comprehensive, readable, and sympathetic biography of Justice Curtis that masterfully fills that gap and hopefully will bring new attention to this important nineteenth-century figure. Although best remembered for his famous dissent in Dred Scott, Curtis had a long and complicated career debating the meaning and implications of the Constitution, and Streichler provides a welcome introduction to those debates and Curtis's role in them.

— Keith E. Whittington

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780813923420
Publisher:
University of Virginia Press
Publication date:
07/19/2005
Series:
Constitutionalism and Democracy Series
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Stuart Streichler is an Affiliate Associate Professor in the Law, Societies and Justice Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >