- 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
Choate greeted important Americans to London (“Mr. Wallace is a Democratic politician who says they are going to … get rid of Bryan, nominate Dewey. …”). He travelled on the Continent, ever the frugal Yankee (“We are not going to take the train de luxe. We think it is too expensive for us”). He dropped in on the House of Commons (“Arthur Balfour seems to get angry in the House every day, from which I infer that he is very tired”). He attended a royal reception (“Mama … stood it … much better than some of her more embonpoint colleagues who almost dropped with fatigue”). He met a young man destined for great things (“Winston Churchill … talked all the time and was most amusing. He is brimming over with the enthusiasm of youth, knows it all on every subject … but he was great fun”). He learned a new game (“I played bridge with the Lord Chancellor and won is. 6d.”). He attended a royal funeral (“The music was really magnificent, as even I could tell, and when they sang ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’ and the military band struck in with the great organ, and the whole congregation joined—well, really even the Stockbridge choir in its best days could have gathered inspiration from it”). He made speeches from one end of the country to the other—on Lincoln, on Emerson, on Hamilton, on Franklin (“far too democratic to suit the titled classes, but at Birmingham they seemed to take him in at once”)—and even trotted out Evarts’ old story about the American assuring the Englishman that Washington indeed could have thrown a dollar across the Potomac, the proof being that he had thrown a sovereign across the Atlantic.
Choate’s farewell present to his host country was a stained-glass window in memory of John Harvard, installed in the chapel in Southwark Cathedral, where Harvard had been christened. It is still in place.
All the ceremonial dinners and country-house weekends left their mark on Choate. He returned to New York with “a corpulence quite astonishing.” A friend remarked on it. “Oh, yes,” said Choate, “it was necessary to meet the Englishmen halfway.”
He resumed his law practice, though less strenuously. Yet at seventy-five his most negative note was a mere “I don’t feel quite so enthusiastic about things as I once did.” Then from Washington a call came once again.
The first Hague Peace Conference had been convened in 1899 at the instigation of Czar Nicholas n, who hoped to slow down the arms race among the great powers because Russia couldn’t afford to keep up with it. As a substitute for war the conference considered arbitrating differences between nations according to international law. While the attending nations couldn’t work this out in practice, the idea seemed promising enough for a second conference to be scheduled for seven years later, in 1907.
Meanwhile the Russo-Japanese War broke out. After a series of Japanese successes Theodore Roosevelt, fresh from his triumphant election as President in 1904, offered to arbitrate a peace. To general surprise, both sides agreed and ultimately accepted his proposals. When peace ensued, the Rough Rider, ever a man to gaze upon his own work and find it good, believed he had struck the mother lode of diplomatic success. Arbitration had brought peace. Arbitration—that was the thing!
As the second Hague Conference approached, T.R. chose Choate to turn it into an enthronement of his cureall for war. Surely the man who had replaced bitterness with bonhomie in Anglo-American relations was the one to spoon the soothing syrup of reason and restraint down the throats of martial-minded Europeans.
Opinion on what followed is divided. Some see the 1907 Hague Conference as a monument to international idealism, a beacon of hope for the brotherhood of man that was extinguished by the villainous statesmen of 1914. Others look on it as cynical pretending, a charade in honor of peace staged to divert the world’s attention from Europe’s methodical preparations for war.
Choate, white-haired and wearing a black silk hat through the Hague’s agreeable summer weather, was the dominant figure of the conference. While unanimous votes were recorded on a few minor matters, a bloc of six or eight nations led by Germany held out firmly against arbitration. Yet more than thirty were recorded as favoring the idea, the cornerstone was laid for the future Peace Palace (Andrew Carnegie put up the money), and agreement was unanimous for holding a third conference by 1915.
Reviewing the conference in 1912, Choate saw it as a constructive step toward the soon-to-be-realized goal of acceptance by the great powers of the rule of law. That this should come about as the climax to the long and largely peaceful era that followed Waterloo seemed inevitable to him, as it did to many others. He saw visions of warring nations with their swords beaten into briefcases, respectfully rising as the judge entered, citing precedents, testifying under oath, constantly seeking a favorable verdict from the ultimate jury, mankind. Salem, Harvard, Cousin Rufus, Mr. Evarts, Fitz-John Porter, and the Constitution had all prepared him for such hopes. For once a down-toearth pragmatist truly believed that even the highest ideals could be made real.