The Four Ages Of Joseph Choate


In the summer of 1858 Choate suddenly resigned from his firm and set up a new one, Choate & Barnes. The Barnes on the announcement card had been at Harvard Law School with him, though they hardly knew each other. Barnes had a few clients to keep the new firm afloat, but his principal interest lay elsewhere; and shortly after the new shingle went up, he married and went on an extended European wedding trip, leaving Choate with little to do except write letters to his parents saying how much they would like Barnes once they got to know him.


A few months later Charles E. Butler retired from practice. At forty he had grown too rich to work. Shortly thereafter Evarts began hinting that the old firm would like Choate to return.

The implication is strong that Choate had become disappointed in his professional progress and took matters into his own hands by waylaying a startled Barnes en route to the altar and making use of him. (Choate acknowledged later that they were unsuited for permanent partnership.) One suspects that he had an inkling of Butler’s intended retirement and reckoned that he might profit more from that development if he could contrive to be hard to get. In any case, Choate & Barnes went into limbo, with no recorded regret on anyone’s part. Barnes ultimately developed a successful law practice in San Francisco. What Choate got out of the maneuver was a partnership—it was to be Evarts, Southmayd, and Choate from then on- and a promise of three thousand dollars a year against fifteen per cent of the firm’s income. This would equal at least thirty thousand dollars a year today, and Choate was just five years out of law school.

From that point Choate steered a steady course for the next four decades. He didn’t enjoy being an office lawyerthai was Southmayd’s function in the firm—but like his mentor, Evarts, “had a great liking for jury trials” and thought that a trial lawyer “leads a more intensely intellectual life than almost any other professional man.”

When he began to think of marrying, an heiress or at least a girl connected to large and regular legal fees would have seemed appropriate, and surely a girl with a sparkle and vivacity to match his own. But Choate went against the form chart by falling in love with the serious-minded Caroline Sterling of Cleveland, who had come to New York in modest circumstances to study art, intending to pursue it for life. She even wore a wedding ring with “Wedded to Art” engraved inside it, and Choate went through prodigies of pursuit until, on July 4, 1861, after declining an invitation to the Jays’ country place because he sensed that in the steaming city a favorable judgment might be forthcoming, “the beleaguered fortress yielded, and I celebrated that anniversary of our national independence by sacrificing my own independence for life.” Their marriage lasted for fifty-five years, until Choate’s death in 1917.

Choate once asserted, in connection with his grandmother Hodges, that the best women in the world are those of whom the world hears least. He may have been thinking of his wife as well. Hardly a direct word from her, and no letters, appear in published material about him. He wrote her almost every day when they were apart, however, and called her “Saint” or, in moments when she found the world too much to cope with, “the L.L.C.,” for Lone, Lorn Critter. But Carrie Choate appears to have been able to cope pretty well; she had four children in her first seven years of marriage, yet managed her household so efficiently that during most of that time and for long afterward half of her husband’s income could be salted away in savings. The Choates had five children in all, and it is their fates that cast most of what shadow appears on the otherwise sunny record of Choate’s life. The eldest son, RulufF, died of a sudden stroke during spring vacation from his freshman year at Harvard. A daughter, Josephine, died unmarried in her thirties. Only the third son, Joseph, Jr., followed his father’s footsteps to Harvard, the law, and worldly success.

The most famous Choate anecdote demonstrates his view of his wife, and as an example of Tactful Utterances Made in the Presence of One’s Wife it surely has never been bettered. At a dinner party during his years of eminence Choate was asked who he would most like to be if he were not Joseph H. Choate. He immediately replied, “Why, Mrs. Choate’s second husband.” In May, 1863, the Choates settled into their first house, at 93 West 2 ist Street (“… we have a bed, two tables, four chairs and a sofa, a cream pitcher, an asparagus fork, six salt cellars and a rug, and there might be a much meaner stock to begin upon than that, you know,” Choate wrote to his mother). Within a couple of months the draft riots broke out in New York, and scores of blacks were lynched on street corners in broad daylight. Even though two of Carrie Choate’s brothers were Tennessee rebels, the Choates sheltered fugitive blacks in their house—risking its destruction by the mob for doing so—until Lincoln dispatched troops to restore order. Choate’s lasting distrust of the New York Irish as a political force probably stems from this bloody episode. He considered them largely responsible for the hangings and tortures that caused hundreds of black men and women to die violently and was bitter because neither Governor Seymour, elected with Irish votes, nor Archbishop Hughes himself made any real effort to stop them.