The Four Ages Of Joseph Choate


On the evening of that day, after a blood-summoning parade up Fifth Avenue and an alcoholic dinner at Delmonico’s punctuated with shouts of “Erin go bragh!” Choate, the embodiment of pure English stock and the Republican Party—that is, of what his audience most opposed—gave his own prescription for achieving home rule: There is a cure for Ireland’s woes and feebleness today … I propose that you should all, with your wives and your children, and your children’s children, with the spoils you have taken from America in your hands, set your faces homeward, land there and strike the blow. Gentlemen, the Grand Old Man needs you. He is clamoring for you. And the Grand Old Party, to which I belong … can get along without you. Think what it would mean for both countries if all the Irishmen of America … should march to the relief of their native land! Then, indeed, would Ireland be for Irishmen and America for Americans!

Though a speech by Choate traditionally produced much laughter, most of the audience thought there was nothing funny about this one. Reports of the address touched off a violent reaction among Irish-Americans, and their newspapers treated Choate as a deadly enemy for years afterward, even though he claimed to have spoken only in fun. But had he? Or was he expressing, three decades after the event, his abiding contempt for the Civil War draft rioters and all that they did?

Within a year or two Choate may have regretted this bit of bravado. He had come down with political fever stemming from his nomination as a Republican delegate to a convention charged with drawing up a new constitution for the state of New York. Handily elected the convention’s president, with plenty of patronage at his disposal (“I find there are forty-three places to fill. Gentlemen, the line will form on my right”), Choate proceeded to draft much of the new constitution himself. He engineered bipartisan support for it and saw it ratified by a substantial majority of the state’s voters.

This triumph touched off a strong Choate-for-governor movement within the Republican rank and file. Public meetings were organized, and newspapers called for his nomination. But a formidable obstacle blocked the way to Albany: Thomas C. Platt, Republican boss of the state.

Like all bosses Platt believed that a candidate’s highest qualification was a demonstrated willingness to do as he was told. Choate, clearly a man with opinions of his own and the habit of expressing them forcefully—and with a long record of opposition to bossism as well—was anathema to Platt, who thumbed him down and awarded the nomination elsewhere. The following year Choate retaliated by opposing Platt for the United States Senate. Those being the days before the direct election of senators, the winner was chosen by vote of the state legislature, which was controlled by Republicans controlled by Platt. His steamroller flattened Choate, 142 to 7.

As a political possibility Choate had the misfortune to fall between two stools. He was too proud, brainy, and independent to be a satisfactory organization candidate. Yet these same qualities limited his popular following as well, endowing him with an Olympian distinction that a man in the street might admire but seldom felt kin to. Personally he was too much the aristocrat and professionally too much the servant of what were then called “the interests” for ordinary voters to warm up to him.

During his sixty-seventh year Choate tried four important lawsuits, made three major speeches, took ten-mile walks around Manhattan, and for relaxation sojourned at his summer home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and went to the Harvard-Yale football game. Meanwhile the Spanish-American War had broken out and blazed into its triumphant conclusion. In the afterglow it became clear to everyone—including a somewhat startled American people—that the United States suddenly had become a colonial power, a naval power, a world power. In each of these roles American interests threatened to impinge on those of Great Britain, then at the zenith of empire. Sticky possibilities loomed, for the countries had enjoyed few friendly moments since the French and Indian War. In London the American ambassadorship lay vacant, its recent incumbent, John Hay, having returned home to become McKinley’s Secretary of State. Pondering a replacement, the two decided it should be either Choate or Whitelaw Reid, owner and editor of the New York Tribune . Both being New Yorkers, Senator Platt was consulted. He vetoed both. McKinley and Hay stood firm. Finally, as Choate said, “Platt supported me because he hated Reid worse than he did me.”

Choate sailed for England early in 1899. From first to last he was a huge success. He persuaded the British to support Hay’s Open Door policy toward China, even though it meant giving up the valuable British commercial concession there. He negotiated the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, by which Great Britain agreed to American proprietorship of a future Panama Canal. Most difficult of all, he helped settle the sensitive fifteen-year-old dispute over the border between Canada and Alaska, presumably forever. And Queen Victoria liked him.