- 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
I had quite a compliment on the street. As I was crossing the Avenue near the Capitol a very good looking man who was spinning by on a bicycle suddenly stopped and jumped off, and said ‘Isn’t this Mr. Choate?’ I said ‘Yes.’ ‘Well,’ he went on, Tm a lawyer and I only stopped to pay my respects, recognizing you by your photographs, and I wanted to say that I esteem you just as much as all the rest of the lawyers in the country do,’ and upon that he remounted and was off again before I could even find out who he was.”
Thus Joseph Hodges Choate at sixty-three, writing to his wife in October, 1895. Around that time the New York Press , in commenting on “the attitudes assumed by prominent men riding in the elevated cars from home to business and back again,” reported that “Joe Choate drops into the northeast corner of the first car and curls himself up as if he were to settle there for life and cared for no creature in the world, not thinking of himself or of his appearance. He sees no one in the car. His mind is elsewhere.”
For Choate himself, who for years commuted from 5oth Street to Wall Street on the Sixth Avenue El, the distant manner may have served another purpose. In his own words, he always made for a corner seat or one next to a window “so as not to be bored on more than one side at once.”
At twenty-five Choate was promising—a brainy and diligent Harvard man seeking his fortune in New York. At forty-five he was prominent—by day a lawyer with millionaires for clients, a banqueteering social lion by night. At sixty-five he was, as the man on the bicycle said, esteemed- arguer of portentous constitutional cases before the Supreme Court, panjandrum of the established order. At eighty-five he was venerated—elder statesman, peacemaker, First Citizen of New York.
To his Harvard classmate Horatio Alger, Jr., Choate’s life must have seemed a bit flat. Where were the struggles, the defeats from which to extract, through pluck and luck, victory? Where, in fact, was any adversity that would have prompted more than the briefest tooth-gritting, the most perfunctory shoulder squaring from Phil the Fiddler or Ragged Dick?
Choate was the kind they don’t write novels about, a darling of the gods, the beneficiary of almost everything in life worth having, including the gift of using his other gifts wisely. Happily, he also had the quality that makes excessive good fortune in others bearable to contemplate: Choate didn’t take things too seriously, including himself. Almost alone of the outsized figures of the Gilded Age he had charm. He didn’t even have to turn it on; like the waters at Saratoga, it kept bubbling up.
Choate embodied the puritan ethic. In his vintage years, when ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, he told the British that Massachusetts was the finest colony England had ever founded. At the dinners of the New England Society of New York, those annual feasts of cod and Indian pudding devoted to preserving Down East purity in the Gomorrah owned by Dutchmen and infested by Irish, when the toast of “Plymouth Rock!” resounded, it spoke to the subbasement of Choate’s soul. Yet he heard lighter strains, too. At one such gathering, when discoursing on the women who came over on the Mayflower , Choate said that they deserved even greater praise than the Pilgrim fathers, for they had endured the same hardships as the Pilgrim fathers and endured the Pilgrim fathers as well.
Choate’s remotest recorded progenitor, one John Choate (“Choate,” wrote Joseph in a sententious moment, “seems to have been a very old English name among the better sort of English yeomen”), was born in England in 1624 and betook himself to Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1643. His third son, Thomas, who was Joseph Choate’s great-great-greatgrandfather, lived to be seventy-four and married three times—at nineteen, sixty-three, and seventy-two. Thomas had nine children, all of whom survived the rigors of Ipswich winters and the absence of modern medicine sufficiently to have children of their own, in quantities from four to twelve. The Republic has never had a shortage of Choates.
On his mother’s side Choate could trace his ancestry to a Philip English who arrived in Salem from the island of Jersey in 1670. Within twenty years he owned twentyseven ships and fifteen houses. How did he make such a pile? Some in Salem must have believed that he was in league with the devil. At any rate, when madness overtook the town in 1692 and Cotton Mather thought that the devil was personally at work there, English and his wife were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned in Boston; they avoided being hanged only by escaping to New York and remaining there until sanity reasserted itself back home.
English’s enterprising instincts passed on to his descendant Gamaliel Hodges, who at fifteen went to sea, which in his grandson Joseph Choate’s stirring words “served him as college and university through all the grades, as cabin-boy, seaman, supercargo, second mate, first mate and captain, and [he] only retired when he had become not only the master but owner of his ship.” In the Salem mise en scène Gamaliel’s presence must have obscured all else. He was said to have been the tallest man in town and weighed three hundred and fifty pounds. But he couldn’t withstand illness. The first time in his life he came down sick, he died, at eighty-five.
Choate was at Harvard then, doing well, the beneficiary of an oaken constitution from the Hodges side and exceptional vitality from the Choates—and of something else, which he valued more highly: “I have never had my horoscope cast, but it must have been propitious to account for the cheerful temperament which has marked my whole life, always looking on the bright side and making the best of everything as it came, which has been in itself a great fortune, worth more than many millions.”
Choate entered this life in Salem on January 24, 1832, and was quickly farmed out to a wet nurse for seventeen months, there already being four small Choates for his mother to contend with. Shortly after coming home he began to accompany his next-older brother, William, to school and as a consequence could never remember a time when he hadn’t known how to read, write, and cipher. The punishment for boys who misbehaved was being made to sit among the girls, but Choate, always sociable, later recalled that he “soon got used to it and liked it very much.”
Salem in those days was a town of fifteen thousand and over two hundred years old, yet it slumbered. The sea trade, long its main source of wealth, had departed, the harbor being too small for the larger ships of the clipper era. On the land side Boston lay fourteen miles away, too far to walk and with only one stage a day. Yet Choate never begrudged growing up in this backwater. For one thing, he revered his parents: “Throughout life I have never made any important decision without wondering what my father and mother would have said about it.”
Choate’s father, George, was a doctor. After graduating from Harvard in 1818 he went on to the medical school and, M.D. in hand, decided that six generations of Ipswich was enough. Moving to Salem, he opened up his black bag and hardly closed it for the next forty years.
Dr. Choate never took a holiday; with a wife and six children to support on fees ranging from seventy-five cents for a house call to seven dollars and fifty cents for delivering a baby, he couldn’t afford to. Yet he managed to put his four sons through Harvard at two hundred dollars per boy per year for tuition, room, and board. The academic year of 1848-49 must have been particularly trying, for they were all there at once, one medical student, one senior, and two freshmen. Joseph Choate considered this “a triumph of the most signal character,” as indeed it was, especially when one reflects on what became of the boys afterward: George, a successful doctor; Charles, president of Massachusetts’ dominant common carrier, the Old Colony Railroad; William, a federal judge and, late in life, founder of the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut; Joseph, probably the greatest lawyer of his age.
“Harvard College at the time I entered it was a comparatively small affair,” Choate later wrote, “and as provincial and local as could well be imagined, and the idea of its ever becoming the great national university had, I think, never entered anybody’s head.”
William and Joseph Choate entered Harvard together in the class of 1852 because the former’s matriculation had been delayed by illness. They roomed together throughout their undergraduate careers, pulling off, at the end of senior year, a memorable double. Their class was Harvard’s largest up to that time, numbering eighty-eight, and William was its first-ranking scholar—"so much so,” wrote his brother, “that there was really nobody second.” Naturally the faculty appointed him valedictorian. Joseph, a mere fourth in the class, was appointed salutatorian, permitting the Choate boys to “sandwich the class between us in the exercises of that [commencement] day.” When their mother showed up for the festivities, she was greeted by Mrs. Jared Sparks, the president’s wife, who inquired how she had journeyed from Salem. Mrs. Choate replied that she had come in the usual way, by train to Boston and thence by omnibus to Cambridge. “You ought not to have come in that way,” declared Mrs. Sparks, “you ought to have come in a chariot drawn by peacocks.”
No doubt it was the memory of this commencement that helped draw Choate back to so many other Harvard occasions in the years that followed. He seldom returned to Cambridge without making a speech. In 1885 when the Vice President of the United States, Thomas Hendricks, was in attendance at an alumni dinner, Choate welcomed him and informed his audience that Mr. Hendricks “comes to us, gentlemen, fresh from Yale, and if we may believe the morning papers … yesterday at New Haven … ‘Yale,’ said he, ‘is everywhere.’ Gentlemen, I would say with this modification: Yes, Yale is everywhere, but she always finds Harvard there before her.” (Applause.)
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.”
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.
In his years as an advocate Choate’s practice ranged far. He represented the trusts: oil, sugar, and tobacco. He extracted money from two of his era’s leading skinflints, Hetty Green and Russell Sage. He kept Stanford University’s endowment from being taken over by the federal government, preserved the Bell System’s hold on the telephone patent, and won legal sanction for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Disputes over wills, club membership rules, and even over an America’s Cup race competed for his efforts with grave constitutional issues.
What first brought him out from under the shadow of Evarts and into the limelight on his own, however, was a breach-of-promise case right out of Feydeau or Gilbert and Sullivan. Early in 1875 Miss Eugénie Martinez, aged twentyone, slipped and fell on the ice in front of a hotel at Broadway and Twenty-ninth Street in New York. To her assistance rushed Juan Del Valle, a middle-aged Cuban banker and widower. Wonder of wonders, she spoke Spanish! He escorted her home. He met her mother. He took her to restaurants. He installed her in a hotel under an assumed name. When summer came, he leased a country house near Poughkeepsie and engaged her as his housekeeper. When summer departed, so did Miss Martinez, threatening suit for breach of promise. Del Valle offered her twenty thousand dollars to desist. She demanded fifty thousand dollars. Del Valle retained Choate.
Public interest was intense, largely because of Miss Martinez, who was described in a newspaper as having “raven black hair and melting eyes shadowed by long, graceful lashes, the complexion of a peach, and a form ravishing to contemplate.”
Choate’s tactic was to attack the motives of “the fair plaintiff,” as he kept calling her. He brought out in testimony that she, her mother, and her sister had for years been dominated by her stepfather, a ferocious despot “without occupation or resources [who] quietly acquiesced in all expenses being paid by the female members of his family without ever asking whence the money came.” From this Choate went on to assert that Miss Martinez at the time she met Del Valle was “not a mere, inexperienced young girl but already an adept in the ways of New York life. … Upon her own evidence nothing can be clearer that never did a privateer upon the Spanish Main give chase to and board a homeward-bound Indiaman with more vigor than that with which this family proposed to board this rich Cuban and make capture of him. He was a big bonanza to them. …”
In his closing argument to the jury Choate discoursed on “the appearance of this fair and beautiful woman upon the stand here. Gentlemen, have you seen her blush? Have you seen one symptom of distress upon her sharp and intelligent features? Not one. There was, in a critical point of her examination, a breaking-down. … Her handkerchief was applied to her eyes. There was a loud call for ‘Water! water’ from [her counsel] and his amiable junior, as if the judge’s bench was about to be wrapped in flame. But it turned out to be only an eclipse by handkerchief, that she had been shedding dry tears all the time. …”
Having fired this salvo, Choate proceeded to close in: “Now I want to speak a word of warning to all good Samaritans, if there are any in the jury box, against this practice of going to the rescue of fallen women on the sidewalks … I know the parable of the Good Samaritan is held up as an example for Christian conduct and action to all good people, but, gentlemen, … this is an historical trick of the ‘nymphs of the pave.’ Hundreds of times has it been practiced upon the verdant and inexperienced stranger in our great city.”
Despite these entertaining arguments he lost the case. The jury decided that Miss Martinez had indeed been wronged by Del Valle. She had sought fifty thousand dollars in damages. She was awarded fifty dollars.
The case that Choate himself considered his most difficult and his greatest victory arose out of the Civil War and had as its central figure Fitz-John Porter, a former general in the Union army.
Porter was a West Pointer of martial family background with a distinguished record in the Mexican War. At the outbreak of hostilities between North and South Lincoln commissioned him a colonel. He saw action almost continuously, was brevetted major general of volunteers by his fortieth birthday, and commanded the Union center at Antietam. A few weeks afterward, in November, 1862, he was charged by General John Pope, the Union commander at the calamitous defeat of the Second Bull Run during the preceding August, with disobeying orders and treasonable inactivity in the presence of the enemy in that battle. Porter was ordered before a court-martial, convicted, and dismissed from the army in disgrace. He never stopped protesting his innocence and more than fifteen years later, in 1878, persuaded President Hayes to appoint a board of officers to review the case.
Choate’s closing address before this board lasted two days and covers a hundred and twenty-five closely printed book pages. It is a masterpiece not only of law but of history, for the bulk of it is Choate’s detailed reconstruction of the confused and terrible two days on which the Second Bull Run was fought as the Union generals groped their way, in a cloud of messengers, misunderstood orders, and steadily mounting errors, toward disaster.
The villain of the piece, in Choate’s version, was Pope. Brought to the East by Lincoln in the hope that he might be the general who could defeat Lee, Pope took command with a vainglorious order of the day that began “I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies. …” The Second Bull Run made a laughingstock of him. As Choate saw it, Pope had sought a scapegoat and settled on Porter. In the courtroom he chopped him up as thoroughly as the Army of Northern Virginia had on the battlefield.
Choate reserved his noblest passage for Porter himself, however, citing his long campaign for relief as the first, great convincing argument of innocence which presents itself upon the threshold of this case … I suppose that General Porter … has never had a single waking hour that has not been inspired with the prayer that he might not die until he should be able … to clear his name. … This conscience which has been implanted within us is a great and powerful engine for support or for destruction. It may make—Shakespeare says it does make—“cowards of us all”… But when it takes the shape of what Virgil calls the “mens sibi conscia recti,” the heart conscious of its own innocence, it can carry a man, as it has carried General Porter, through perils such as have never yet been found upon the battle-field. …
The review board vindicated Porter completely, Congress passed a bill restoring him to his rank, and he later served successively as commissioner of public works, police commissioner, and fire commissioner of the city of New York. Choate took no fee for his efforts.
The most important litigation Choate ever engaged in, and his most significant triumph, was the series of cases brought in the Supreme Court of the United States to test the constitutionality of the income-tax law. In the Civil War the Federal government had levied and collected an income tax, which the Supreme Court decided was constitutional. After the war it was repealed, but in 1894 Congress passed another income-tax law that, despite the earlier decision, a group of insurance companies decided to challenge. The government’s case was led by the Attorney General, Richard Olney, and included dire forecasts of what might happen if the income tax were declared unconstitutional: infuriated mass-meetings, riots in the street, the Supreme Court itself perhaps swept away. After three days of this Choate rose to reply with the insouciance and force that had done so much to make his reputation: If the Court please: After Jupiter had thundered all around the sky, and had leveled everything and everybody by his prodigious bolts, Mercury came out from his hiding-place and looked around to see how much damage had been done. He was quite familiar with the weapons of his learned Olympian friend; he had often felt their force, but he knew that it was largely stage thunder, manufactured for the particular occasion. … It never would have occurred to me … that if in [the Court’s] wisdom you found it necessary to protect a suitor who sought here to … invoke the protection of the Constitution which was created for us all, it was an argument against your furnishing such relief and protection that possibly the popular wrath might sweep the Court away. It is the first time I have ever heard that argument presented to this or any other court.
Choate declared that among the framers of the Constitution lay one ever-present fear: that a number of states might be able to combine their voting strength in the House of Representatives, where revenue legislation must originate, to levy an unjust tax on a smaller group of states or even on a single state. For that reason, he argued, the Constitution (Article 1, Sections 2 and 8) provides that direct taxes, such as a tax on income, must be levied among states according to their populations by census; that is, representation and direct taxation go hand in hand.
He then pointed out that the wartime income tax, which exempted the first two thousand dollars of income, had pressed unfairly on the four richest states: New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. They had paid 80 per cent of that tax, though holding only 83 of 356 seats in the House of Representatives, less than 25 per cent. If the tax of 1894 were allowed to stand, he said, the same four rich states would pay at least 90 per cent of it.
There was more, but that was the gist and it sufficed. In two related decisions the Supreme Court declared the income tax unconstitutional. When William Jennings Bryan, campaigning for the Presidency in the following year, tried to make an issue of the Court’s action on the ground that it protected the rich, he got nowhere.
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.
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.
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.
In private life again: more speaking invitations, bar association gatherings, Harvard dinners, fumings at Tammany, rejoicings over new acquisitions by the Metropolitan, a golden-wedding celebration at Stockbridge with hundreds of guests and a gold piece for everyone who worked on the place—and growing intimations of mortality: “Our meeting of the Peabody Trust today … was a little gruesome, for the two Trustees who sat on my right and left were wheeled in in chairs by their nurses and were both a little incoherent. We must wind up before the rest qf us get that way.”
Strongly pro-Ally when war came in 1914, Choate foresaw that it would last a long time. He hoped that the United States would get into it. When that happened and the British and French sent special missions to America, Mayor Mitchel appointed Choate “as leading citizen of New York” to receive them on the city’s behalf. He met each when it landed at the Battery and escorted its leader—former Prime Minister BaIfour and Marshal Joffre—in the parade up to City Hall. At the formal banquet to both commissions at the Waldorf Astoria he said that when Congress declared war on Germany, “for the first time, after two years and a half, I was able to hold up my head as high as the weight of eighty-five years would allow.”
A week like that was hard on a man of eighty-five. The morning after it was over, Choate complained of a pain around his heart. That evening he turned to the Saint and muttered, “I am feeling very ill. I think this is the end.” Shortly before midnight he died, alert to the last.
In the following months men and institutions stood in line to do him honor: Chauncey Depew at the Union League; Elihu Root at the bar association; Nicholas Murray Butler at the chamber of commerce; and, at the Century, no less than T.R. himself, who called Choate “one of the great assets of our national life,” then added, in a rarer accolade, that “he himself in his person was greater than anything that he did"—larding these encomia with a string of Choate anecdotes, including an episode he had witnessed himself: I shall never forget one incident at a reception at the then Vice President Morion’s. There was present a thoroughly nice lady—of possibly limited appeal—to whom Choate spoke; whereupon, with a face of woe, she began to relate how much she had suffered since she had last seen him on account of an attack of appendicitis and of the operation thereby rendered necessary. After Choate had expressed his sympathy two or three times the lady said, “I didn’t know whether I had changed so that you would not recognize me.” Mr. Choate replied, “Madame, I hardly did recognize you without your appendix.”
(Laughter, followed by applause.) It was almost as good as hearing Joe Choate himself.