The Four Ages Of Joseph Choate


I had quite a compliment on the street. As I was crossing the Avenue near the Capitol a very good looking man who was spinning by on a bicycle suddenly stopped and jumped off, and said ‘Isn’t this Mr. Choate?’ I said ‘Yes.’ ‘Well,’ he went on, Tm a lawyer and I only stopped to pay my respects, recognizing you by your photographs, and I wanted to say that I esteem you just as much as all the rest of the lawyers in the country do,’ and upon that he remounted and was off again before I could even find out who he was.”

Thus Joseph Hodges Choate at sixty-three, writing to his wife in October, 1895. Around that time the New York Press , in commenting on “the attitudes assumed by prominent men riding in the elevated cars from home to business and back again,” reported that “Joe Choate drops into the northeast corner of the first car and curls himself up as if he were to settle there for life and cared for no creature in the world, not thinking of himself or of his appearance. He sees no one in the car. His mind is elsewhere.”

For Choate himself, who for years commuted from 5oth Street to Wall Street on the Sixth Avenue El, the distant manner may have served another purpose. In his own words, he always made for a corner seat or one next to a window “so as not to be bored on more than one side at once.”

At twenty-five Choate was promising—a brainy and diligent Harvard man seeking his fortune in New York. At forty-five he was prominent—by day a lawyer with millionaires for clients, a banqueteering social lion by night. At sixty-five he was, as the man on the bicycle said, esteemed- arguer of portentous constitutional cases before the Supreme Court, panjandrum of the established order. At eighty-five he was venerated—elder statesman, peacemaker, First Citizen of New York.

To his Harvard classmate Horatio Alger, Jr., Choate’s life must have seemed a bit flat. Where were the struggles, the defeats from which to extract, through pluck and luck, victory? Where, in fact, was any adversity that would have prompted more than the briefest tooth-gritting, the most perfunctory shoulder squaring from Phil the Fiddler or Ragged Dick?

Choate was the kind they don’t write novels about, a darling of the gods, the beneficiary of almost everything in life worth having, including the gift of using his other gifts wisely. Happily, he also had the quality that makes excessive good fortune in others bearable to contemplate: Choate didn’t take things too seriously, including himself. Almost alone of the outsized figures of the Gilded Age he had charm. He didn’t even have to turn it on; like the waters at Saratoga, it kept bubbling up.

Choate embodied the puritan ethic. In his vintage years, when ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, he told the British that Massachusetts was the finest colony England had ever founded. At the dinners of the New England Society of New York, those annual feasts of cod and Indian pudding devoted to preserving Down East purity in the Gomorrah owned by Dutchmen and infested by Irish, when the toast of “Plymouth Rock!” resounded, it spoke to the subbasement of Choate’s soul. Yet he heard lighter strains, too. At one such gathering, when discoursing on the women who came over on the Mayflower , Choate said that they deserved even greater praise than the Pilgrim fathers, for they had endured the same hardships as the Pilgrim fathers and endured the Pilgrim fathers as well.

Choate’s remotest recorded progenitor, one John Choate (“Choate,” wrote Joseph in a sententious moment, “seems to have been a very old English name among the better sort of English yeomen”), was born in England in 1624 and betook himself to Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1643. His third son, Thomas, who was Joseph Choate’s great-great-greatgrandfather, lived to be seventy-four and married three times—at nineteen, sixty-three, and seventy-two. Thomas had nine children, all of whom survived the rigors of Ipswich winters and the absence of modern medicine sufficiently to have children of their own, in quantities from four to twelve. The Republic has never had a shortage of Choates.

On his mother’s side Choate could trace his ancestry to a Philip English who arrived in Salem from the island of Jersey in 1670. Within twenty years he owned twentyseven ships and fifteen houses. How did he make such a pile? Some in Salem must have believed that he was in league with the devil. At any rate, when madness overtook the town in 1692 and Cotton Mather thought that the devil was personally at work there, English and his wife were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned in Boston; they avoided being hanged only by escaping to New York and remaining there until sanity reasserted itself back home.