The Four Ages Of Joseph Choate


Choate thought that the tax had been buried beyond revival and that nothing less than a constitutional amendment could resurrect it. He was right. To undo his work required the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, with wording addressed to the heart of Choate’s argument: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

If his law practice was the main tent of Choate’s life, a large number of sideshows arranged themselves around it. He stood high in the legal establishment and served as president of the American Bar Association. He helped found the Union League Club and the Harvard Club and was president of both. For forty years he was a governor of New York Hospital, for forty-eight a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History. He made his most lasting contribution in the world of super-EIkdom, however, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Founded in 1870 with Choate as an incorporating trustee, the Metropolitan first occupied quarters in a made-over house. Soon it became clear that a proper museum building would be needed, preferably something grandiose, a Manhattan Louvre that could both house and encourage an infinitude of gifts and acquisitions. But where would it go, and how would it be paid for and maintained? Rich New Yorkers had displayed a willingness to give pictures and statues to the new museum but not much enthusiasm for underwriting the cost of bricks and mortar.

The example of the Louvre pointed the way. Each year it was bringing to Paris more and more in the way of publicity, tourists, money. Surely an American equivalent could do the same for New York. Why shouldn’t the city and state governments be asked to make in their own interests a contribution that would speed the day of inflow?

It was Choate who put the deal on paper. The problem of finding and buying land for the new building disappeared in a series of clauses. The city of New York would simply make available some idle acreage that it happened to own, a bit of wilderness on the Fifth Avenue side of Central Park. But since this would cost the city nothing, as a positive contribution it would erect a museum building on the site. Ownership of both land and building would naturally carry with it certain privileges, above all the privilege of paying for the upkeep of both. But Choate showed restraint. He didn’t want to ask too much of City Hall. He provided that the burden of owning the works of art inside the museum would continue to be borne by the trustees.

Naturally his fellow trustees wished to honor so evenhanded a Solomon, whose scheme, incidentally, still stands after almost a century. They asked Choate to make the main speech at the opening of the new building on March 3o, 1880. The guest list was of the thickest cream, beginning with President Hayes, and it was said that never before in the history of the world had so many millionaires been gathered in one place.

After talking of art and its glories Choate made it plain to his asset-heavy listeners why they had been asked: Probably no age and no city has ever seen such gigantic fortunes accumulated out of nothing as have here been piled up within the last five years. … [The trustees] freely proffer their services in relieving these distended and apoplectic pockets. Think of it, ye millionaires of many markets, what glory may yet be yours … to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery, the rude ores of commerce into sculptured marble, and railroad shares and mining stocks—things which perish without the using, and which in the next financial panic shall surely shrivel like parched scrolls—into the glorified canvas of the world’s masters, that shall adorn these walls for centuries.

An observer described Choate in action as “carefully but not obtrusively dressed, apt to assume careless attitudes, standing with one hand in a trousers’ pocket as he spoke, and with a musical voice of tenor quality, flexible, wellcontrolled, not loud, but of great carrying power.” In these days of elaborate public-address systems it is easy to forget how valuable a voice like that could be to a man who sought to sway multitudes—which is perhaps why, when the Committee of Seventy was formed in 1871 to rid New York of the rule of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed, it was Choate, though not yet forty and only marginally prominent, who was selected to make the principal speech at the great mass meeting of indignant citizens at Cooper Union. (Since the effort was hugely successful, with Tweed going to jail, one wonders what went through Choate’s mind twenty-three years later when a committee of thirty was formed to rid New York of the rule of Tammany Hall and Boss Croker and the principal speaker at a mass meeting of indignant citizens at Cooper Union again was himself.)

Choate delivered his most famous and controversial after-dinner speech on March 17, 1893, to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. Across the Atlantic agitation for home rule raged at its height as Britain’s prime minister, Gladstone, by then known as the Grand Old Man, sought to top off his political career by restoring sovereignty to Dublin. Americans of Irish extraction, most of them Democrats, rabidly supported the cause, never more so than on St. Patrick’s Day itself.