- 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
Until the day he died, the class of ’52 photograph hung in Choate’s bedroom, where he could see it easily; and near the end of his life he confessed that “I often put myself to sleep by calling the roll of my classmates, whose names are as familiar now as then.”
As an undergraduate Choate began to see something of his famous kinsman Rufus Choate, his father’s first cousin, a former representative and United States senator who ranks with Daniel Webster as one of America’s two leading lawyers in the decades just before the Civil War. Probably it was his example that caused Joe Choate to settle on law as a career and to enter Harvard Law School, which in those days seems to have been as selective about its clientele as a back-street bagnio: “No examinations to get in, or to proceed, or to get out. All that was required was the lapse of time, two years, and the payment of the fees, and not to have got into any disgrace while in the school.” Under these circumstances, exemplified by an instructor who approached all marital legal questions with the dictum “The husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband,” Choate spent many of his law-school days attending trials in Boston, especially when Cousin Rufus was pleading, to study technique.
All bad things come to an end, and at not quite twentyfour Choate became a certified man of law. Brother William shared his circumstances. Each sought the bubble reputation. But where?
Anticipating Greeley’s advice, they went west—as far west as the railroad could carry them, which turned out to be Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Everywhere appraising conditions for ambitious young lawyers and in many places finding encouragement, nevertheless they held back, fearful that “we were not ready for the West, or the West was not ready for us.” It was all so rough. In one frontier town they saw a judge try a case with his feet sprawled on the bench and encased in carpet slippers. They headed home.
Back east the road the brothers had travelled so long together finally forked. William returned to Salem to practice. With home base thus occupied, the logical alternative for Joseph was Boston. Yet he passed it by. Was the shadow of Cousin Rufus too intimidating, or did he scent on the southwesterly breeze the more fertile opportunities of New York (then outgrowing its traditional role of regional capital on the order of Boston or Philadelphia and beginning to assume economic domination of the entire country)?
Whatever his reasons, Choate arrived in Manhattan with a promise of forty dollars a month from his father until he could support himself and a letter of recommendation from Cousin Rufus that cited Joseph’s “very high reputation for scholarship and all worth, and … extraordinary promise” and went on to declare, in a distillation of the puritan ethic, that he “has decided to enroll himself among the brave and magnanimous of your bar, with a courage not unwarranted by his talents, character, ambition and power of labor.” This glittering endorsement from the hand of the most famous lawyer of the time was directed to a single addressee: William Maxwell Evarts of the Wall Street firm of Butler, Evarts, and Southmayd.
Choate and Evarts were associated in the law for forty years, and Choate always thought him “the quickest-wilted man I have ever known.” Evarts, too, was a puritan (he could read the Bible perfectly at the age of three), a Bostonian driven by some mutant gene to Yale instead of Harvard, and subsequently Andrew Johnson’s Attorney General (a reward for having successfully defended Johnson in his impeachment trial), Hayes’s Secretary of State, and United States senator from New York. After each of these forays into public life Evarts would return to the firm, from which Joseph Choate hadn’t budged. When Choate himself got such feelers, he waved them away with a standard excuse: “One statesman in a law firm is sufficient for business purposes.”
In January, 1856, Evarts hired Choate as a clerk to write wills and deeds drawn up by the firm. Annual salary: five hundred dollars. Then occupying a room in a Bleecker Street boarding house at five dollars a week, meals included, Choate celebrated by cancelling the forty-dollar allowance from his father and taking a larger room, with a window.
Almost from the moment he arrived in New York, Choate moved in elevated social circles. He was proposed for membership in the Century Club, then as now a citadel of Manhattan’s intellectual movers and shakers. He was asked to dinner by the Schuylers, to tea by the Morrises, to weekends at the Jays’ up in Katonah, and to “evenings” chez Hamilton Fish (later Grant’s Secretary of State), “where I always found myself among the best people.” A photograph of the period makes it easy to see why. Choate had a noble brow, wavy dark hair, a determined chin, and large dark eyes—this on a well-proportioned six-foot frame. In short, he was surpassingly handsome—undoubtedly looked on as a catch by any number of hopeful maidens and sharp-eyed mamas—and he must have recognized this, for it seems to have been very hard to get a serious word out of him. When he finally did marry, he records that an older woman he knew told him that his fiancèe “must certainly be a woman of superior intelligence since no ordinary woman would be able to tell whether I was in earnest or not.”