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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Curtis, George Ticknor

CURTIS, GEORGE TICKNOR (1812–1894), American lawyer, legal writer and constitutional historian, was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, on the 28th of November 1812. He graduated at Harvard in 1832, was admitted to the bar in 1836, and practised in Worcester, Boston, New York and Washington, appearing before the United States Supreme Court in many important cases, including the Dred Scott case, in which he argued the constitutional question for Scott, and the “legal tender” cases. In Boston he was for many years the United States commissioner, and in this capacity, despite the vigorous protests of the abolitionists and his own opposition to slavery, ordered the return to his owner of the famous fugitive slave, Thomas Sims, in 1852. He was the nephew and close friend of George Ticknor, the historian of Spanish literature, and his association with his uncle was influential in developing his scholarly tastes; while his other personal friendships with eminent Bostonians during the period of conservative Whig ascendancy in Massachusetts politics were of direct influence upon his political opinions and published estimates. He is best known as the author of A History of the Origin, Formation and Adoption of the Constitution of the United States, with Notices of its principal Framers (1854), republished, with many additions, as The Constitutional History of the United States from their Declaration of Independence to the Close of their Civil War (2 vols., 1889–1896). This history, which had been watched in its earlier progress by Daniel Webster, may be said to present the old Federalist or “Webster-Whig” view of the formation and powers of the Constitution; and it was natural that Curtis should follow it with a voluminous Life of Daniel Webster (2 vols., 1870), the most valuable biography of that statesman. Both these works are characterized by solidity and comprehensiveness rather than by rhetorical attractiveness or literary perspective. In his later years Mr Curtis, like so many of the followers of Webster, turned towards the Democratic party; and he wrote, among other works of minor importance, an exculpatory life of President James Buchanan (2 vols., 1883) and two vindications of General George B. McClellan’s career (1886 and 1887). He died in New York on the 28th of March 1894.

In addition to the works above mentioned he published: Digest of the English and American Admiralty Decisions (1839); Rights and Duties of Merchant Seamen (1841), which elicited the hearty praise of Justice Joseph Story; Law of Patents (1849); Equity Precedents (1850); Commentaries on the Jurisprudence, Practice and Peculiar Jurisdiction of the Courts of the United States (1854–1858); Creation or Evolution: A Philosophical Inquiry (1887); and a novel, John Chambers: A Tale of the Civil War in America (1889).

His brother, Benjamin Robbins Curtis (1809–1874), also an eminent jurist, was born on the 4th of November 1809, in Watertown, Massachusetts, graduated at Harvard in 1829, studied law at Cambridge and at Northfield, Mass., where, after his admission to the bar in 1832, he practised law for two years, and then in Boston in 1834–1851. In 1851, being then a member of the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature, he was on the 22nd of September appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, where he gained his greatest fame in 1857 by his dissenting opinion in the Dred Scott case, in which he argued that the Missouri Compromise was constitutional, and that negroes could become citizens. His argument was immediately published as an anti-slavery document. On the 1st of September 1857 he resigned from the Supreme Court and resumed his private practice. In 1868 he was one of the counsel for President Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial, and opened for the defence in a remarkable two-days’ speech. He died at Newport, Rhode Island, on the 15th of September 1874. He prepared Decisions of the Supreme Court (22 vols.) and a Digest of its decisions down to 1854.

A Memoir of Benjamin Robbins Curtis, with Some of his Professional and Miscellaneous Papers, edited by his son Benjamin R. Curtis, was published at Boston in 1879, the Memoir being by George Ticknor Curtis.