- Historic Sites
The Four Ages Of Joseph Choate
He was promising at 25, prominent at 45, esteemed at 65, venerated at 85
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
English’s enterprising instincts passed on to his descendant Gamaliel Hodges, who at fifteen went to sea, which in his grandson Joseph Choate’s stirring words “served him as college and university through all the grades, as cabin-boy, seaman, supercargo, second mate, first mate and captain, and [he] only retired when he had become not only the master but owner of his ship.” In the Salem mise en scène Gamaliel’s presence must have obscured all else. He was said to have been the tallest man in town and weighed three hundred and fifty pounds. But he couldn’t withstand illness. The first time in his life he came down sick, he died, at eighty-five.
Choate was at Harvard then, doing well, the beneficiary of an oaken constitution from the Hodges side and exceptional vitality from the Choates—and of something else, which he valued more highly: “I have never had my horoscope cast, but it must have been propitious to account for the cheerful temperament which has marked my whole life, always looking on the bright side and making the best of everything as it came, which has been in itself a great fortune, worth more than many millions.”
Choate entered this life in Salem on January 24, 1832, and was quickly farmed out to a wet nurse for seventeen months, there already being four small Choates for his mother to contend with. Shortly after coming home he began to accompany his next-older brother, William, to school and as a consequence could never remember a time when he hadn’t known how to read, write, and cipher. The punishment for boys who misbehaved was being made to sit among the girls, but Choate, always sociable, later recalled that he “soon got used to it and liked it very much.”
Salem in those days was a town of fifteen thousand and over two hundred years old, yet it slumbered. The sea trade, long its main source of wealth, had departed, the harbor being too small for the larger ships of the clipper era. On the land side Boston lay fourteen miles away, too far to walk and with only one stage a day. Yet Choate never begrudged growing up in this backwater. For one thing, he revered his parents: “Throughout life I have never made any important decision without wondering what my father and mother would have said about it.”
Choate’s father, George, was a doctor. After graduating from Harvard in 1818 he went on to the medical school and, M.D. in hand, decided that six generations of Ipswich was enough. Moving to Salem, he opened up his black bag and hardly closed it for the next forty years.
Dr. Choate never took a holiday; with a wife and six children to support on fees ranging from seventy-five cents for a house call to seven dollars and fifty cents for delivering a baby, he couldn’t afford to. Yet he managed to put his four sons through Harvard at two hundred dollars per boy per year for tuition, room, and board. The academic year of 1848-49 must have been particularly trying, for they were all there at once, one medical student, one senior, and two freshmen. Joseph Choate considered this “a triumph of the most signal character,” as indeed it was, especially when one reflects on what became of the boys afterward: George, a successful doctor; Charles, president of Massachusetts’ dominant common carrier, the Old Colony Railroad; William, a federal judge and, late in life, founder of the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut; Joseph, probably the greatest lawyer of his age.
“Harvard College at the time I entered it was a comparatively small affair,” Choate later wrote, “and as provincial and local as could well be imagined, and the idea of its ever becoming the great national university had, I think, never entered anybody’s head.”
William and Joseph Choate entered Harvard together in the class of 1852 because the former’s matriculation had been delayed by illness. They roomed together throughout their undergraduate careers, pulling off, at the end of senior year, a memorable double. Their class was Harvard’s largest up to that time, numbering eighty-eight, and William was its first-ranking scholar—"so much so,” wrote his brother, “that there was really nobody second.” Naturally the faculty appointed him valedictorian. Joseph, a mere fourth in the class, was appointed salutatorian, permitting the Choate boys to “sandwich the class between us in the exercises of that [commencement] day.” When their mother showed up for the festivities, she was greeted by Mrs. Jared Sparks, the president’s wife, who inquired how she had journeyed from Salem. Mrs. Choate replied that she had come in the usual way, by train to Boston and thence by omnibus to Cambridge. “You ought not to have come in that way,” declared Mrs. Sparks, “you ought to have come in a chariot drawn by peacocks.”
No doubt it was the memory of this commencement that helped draw Choate back to so many other Harvard occasions in the years that followed. He seldom returned to Cambridge without making a speech. In 1885 when the Vice President of the United States, Thomas Hendricks, was in attendance at an alumni dinner, Choate welcomed him and informed his audience that Mr. Hendricks “comes to us, gentlemen, fresh from Yale, and if we may believe the morning papers … yesterday at New Haven … ‘Yale,’ said he, ‘is everywhere.’ Gentlemen, I would say with this modification: Yes, Yale is everywhere, but she always finds Harvard there before her.” (Applause.)