The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Choate, Joseph Hodges

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography
James E. Homans, editor
Choate, Joseph Hodges

CHOATE, Joseph Hodges, lawyer, b. in Salem, Mass., 24 Jan., 1832; d. in New York City, 14 May, 1917, son of George and Margaret Manning (Hodges) Choate. His first paternal American ancestor, John Choate, emigrated from Colchester, England, in 1643, and settled in the town that is now Ipswich, Mass. His son Thomas was the first of the family to occupy Choate Island. Thomas's son Francis (1701-77) was a farmer. William, son of Francis (1730-85), was a sea captain. His son George married Susanna, daughter of Judge Stephen Choate. Their son George, a physician (1796-1880), married Margaret Manning, daughter of Gamaliel Hodges, of Salem. He was a graduate of Harvard, and to that institution he sent his sons William Gardiner and Joseph Hodges, who were graduated in 1852, William being valedictorian and Joseph ranking fourth in the class and delivering the Latin oration. Joseph studied two years in Dane Law School, then for one year in the office of Leverett Saltonstall in Boston, and in 1855 was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. In that year he went to New York, bearing a letter of introduction from his father's cousin, Rufus Choate, to William M. Evarts. In 1856 he was admitted to the New York bar and entered the office of Butler, Evarts and Southmayd. In 1859 he became a member of the firm of Evarts, Southmayd and Choate and in 1884 this firm became Evarts, Choate and Beaman. By his habit of close study, his fine presence, his masterly oratory, his wide reading, his marvelous memory, and his keen wit Mr. Choate rapidly attained high rank in his profession and was known as one of the ablest and best-equipped lawyers of the New York bar. It was said that he was “a specialist in every branch of the law.” This was due to the fact that when he entered upon a case he carefully studied everything connected with it, so that in some instances he might be said to have mastered a science in order to apply his knowledge of it to the case in hand. It was notable that his talents were not always arrayed in defense of the same general principles. He might at one time plead for the rights and privileges of the federal government, against the encroachments of corporations, and again push to the utmost the claims of individuals or corporations against the government. His justification may be found in some of his public utterances. In his speech when he unveiled the statue of Rufus Choate he said: “His theory of advocacy was the only possible theory consistent with the sound and wholesome administration of justice: that, with all loyalty to truth and honor, he must devote his best talents and attainments, all that he was and all that he could, to the support and enforcement of the cause committed to his trust.” And of James C. Carter he said: “He was very far from limiting himself to causes that he thought would win, or to such as were sound in law or right in fact. No genuine advocate that I know of has ever done that. He held that an advocate may properly maintain either side of any cause that a court may hear.” Mr. Choate appeared probably in more trials of note than any of his contemporaries; in fact, his services were sought in all the celebrated cases of his time. Among his memorable cases was the income tax case, probably the one of widest interest, involving the constitutionality of the Income Tax Law of 1894. He appeared before the Supreme Court in May, 1895, to argue against the law; and though he was opposed by James C. Carter and other eminent counsel, the court decided in his favor. Maj.-Gen. Fitz John Porter, accused of gross disobedience of orders at the second battle of Bull Run, 29 Aug., 1862, was tried by court-martial, cashiered, and “forever disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the government of the United States.” This led to a long and acrimonious controversy, with petitions for a reversal. President Hayes appointed an advisory board of three major generals, and Mr. Choate appeared as advocate for General Porter. The board recommended annulment of the sentence, but a bill to that effect failed to pass Congress. It was passed later, but was vetoed on a technical objection by President Arthur. When it was passed a second time, President Cleveland signed it. This was perhaps the most famous case of the kind that ever occurred. The circumstances of the battle were so peculiar, and the testimony so conflicting, that there was room for honest difference of opinion. Mr. Choate's chief credit was due to the minute and patient care with which he studied the campaign in its every element — military, topographical, psychological, legal — and made himself complete master of the problem; and Mr. Choate not only succeeded in establishing Porter's innocence, but in having him restored to rank. Another unique and intricate case was that of Luigi di Cesnola, who, while American consul at Cyprus, exhumed a great number of antiquities in that island, and brought them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Certain critics questioned their genuineness, declaring that many of them were either wholly spurious or patched up. The newspapers were fiercely partisan, and the matter was submitted to a committee of five well-known citizens, who pronounced in Cesnola's favor. Then a libel suit was brought against him, and the jury disagreed Mr. Choate, as Cesnola's advocate, made an extensive study of archæology. It might be said that in such cases he was his own expert. Among other important cases in which he appeared were the contests over the wills of Commodore Vanderbilt and Samuel J. Tilden. In the test of the Chinese Exclusion Act he argued against the validity of the law. Another singular case was that of David Naegle. David S. Terry, who had killed Senator Broderick in a duel, had a grudge against Justice Field of the Supreme Court, because of a decision that disinherited his wife, and he threatened the life of the Justice. Therefore Naegle, a detective, was assigned to duty to protect him. When Terry found Field in a railroad restaurant in California, and struck him while Mrs. Terry ran back to the train for a revolver, Naegle promptly shot him dead. For this, Naegle was tried, the plea being that the federal government had no right to authorize such a proceeding in California. Mr. Choate argued for the supremacy of the government, and Naegle was acquitted. The Pribilof Islands in Behring Sea, which belong to the United States, are the breeding-grounds of the very valuable Alaska seal herd; and serious complaints were made when Canadian boats from Victoria persisted in pursuing the seals on their way to and from the breeding-ground and killing them indiscriminately in the deep sea, which threatened destruction of the entire herd. The American contention involved the assumption that Behring was a closed sea and the seals belonged to the United States. The question was arbitrated, Mr. Choate conducted the case for the Canadians, and they won. He was counsel for David Stewart in his suit against Collis P. Huntington, one of the principal owners of the Central Pacific Railway, for recovery of a very large sum, claimed as the result of a stock transaction; and he was counsel also for Richard M. Hunt, the eminent architect, against Paran Stevens, for whom he built the Victoria Hotel. In the former case he was opposed by Roscoe Conkling, and in both cases his powers of ridicule were displayed liberally. But the most notable and picturesque case in this respect was that of Laidlaw against Sage. A lunatic had entered the office of Russell Sage carrying a bomb and demanding a million dollars. Presently he dropped the bomb, which exploded, killing him and another man, and wounding Laidlaw, who was there on a business errand Laidlaw declared that Mr. Sage had seized him and used him as a shield to protect himself. Mr. Choate who appeared for the plaintiff, in his cross-questioning and his plea played humorously upon Mr. Sage's reputation for penuriousness and won a verdict of $25,000 for his client. On appeal, the verdict was set aside, and a second trial gave the plaintiff $43,000. This also was set aside on appeal, the higher court holding that ridicule of Mr. Sage's personal peculiarities should not have been allowed. Mr. Choate was engaged in two notable political cases. One was the prosecution of the notorious Tweed ring in the city of New York; the other was known as the “theft of the State Senate by the Hill ring,” one Maynard being seated there on the strength of a spurious return. In the contest over the will of Mrs. Leland Stanford, Mr. Choate's success secured the establishment of Leland Stanford Junior University with a magnificent endowment. He also appeared in the Credit Mobilier case, involving the contract for the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad; several cases against the so-called Standard Oil Trust and the Tobacco Trust, involving millions of dollars; Gebhard vs. Canada Southern Railway Company, affecting the rights of holders of foreign railway bonds; Miller vs. Mayor, etc., of New York, concerning the lawfulness of the construction of the first New York and Brooklyn Bridge; the Bell Telephone case, involving the validity of the basic Bell telephone patent; Philadelphia Fire Association vs. New York, involving the constitutionality of the reciprocal and retaliatory taxation laws against foreign corporations enacted by many of the States; the defense of Commodore McCalla, charged with alleged breaches of the naval regulations, before the naval court-martial; the Kansas prohibition law case, in which was attacked the validity of the Kansas liquor law; Hutchinson vs. the New York Stock Exchange and of Loubart vs. the Union Club, in each of which he succeeded in securing the reinstatement of the plaintiff to membership, and because of the novel questions involved, attracted great public interest. Among the sensational will contests in which he participated were the Cruger, A. T. Stewart, Hopkins-Searles, Hoyt and Drake, and he also conducted the investigation of the Defender-Valkyrie controversy, arising out of charges made by Lord Dunraven as to the conduct of the international yacht race between those boats. His audacity in the courtroom was not exhibited solely toward witnesses and opposing counsel; on occasion it struck toward the bench. To one judge who was listless he said: “Your honor, I have forty minutes in which to sum up, and I shall need every minute of it and your strict attention besides.” “You shall have it,” said the judge. On another occasion the presiding judge was about to punish John W. Goff for alleged discourtesy to the court while defending a prisoner. Mr. Choate denied that Goff had committed the offense. “But I saw him do it,” said the judge. “Then,” said Mr. Choate, “of course it becomes a question between your honor's personal observation and the observation of a cloud of witnesses who testify to the contrary. Was your honor ever conscious of being absolutely convinced from the very outset of a trial, that a certain person was guilty? If not, you are more than human. Was your honor ever conscious, as the trial proceeded, that it was impossible to conceal your conviction? If not, you are more than human. That has happened in many courts, and when it does happen it rouses the spirit of resistance in every advocate who understands his duty.” And Mr. Choate carried his point. His abounding humor, ready wit, and easy delivery made him a successful after-dinner speaker and he was called on for popular addresses on many public occasions. His published work consists of little else than such addresses, some of which were greatly admired. Among these were his tributes to Abraham Lincoln, Admiral Farragut, Benjamin Franklin, Rufus Choate, and the United States Supreme Court. He spoke also in favor of abolishing the exemption of American ships from tolls in using the Panama Canal. Though he sometimes took part as a speaker in political campaigns, beginning with his speeches for Frémont in 1856, he was a candidate for political office but once. He had said that he would neither seek office nor decline it if it were offered. In 1897, Republicans who were dissatisfied with Senator Platt attempted to replace him with Mr. Choate; but Mr. Platt secured his re-election by control of the Republican caucus in the Legislature. Mr. Choate presided over the State Constitutional Convention of 1894, and headed the American delegation to The Hague Conference. He never saved up his wit for special occasions, but let it fly out whenever and wherever circumstances suggested it. Much of it came from his familiarity with classic literature and his ready knack of giving an unexpected application to a familiar passage. On an occasion when he was addressing a large audience, while the portly form of President Cleveland was beside him, after the famous witticism about the “Sun” and the “Post,” and their alternative relations to vice and virtue, he pretended to increase the perplexity with, “ We are puzzled, too, to know ‘on what meat doth this our Caesar feed that he has grown so great.’ ” Many epigrams and bits of unstudied humor have been popularly attributed to Mr. Choate, some of which he disowned; but he acknowledged the authorship of the most original and pleasing of them all. Being asked at a dinner who he would choose to be if he could not be Joseph H. Choate, he answered promptly, “Mrs. Choate's second husband.” In 1899 President McKinley appointed Mr. Choate Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, to succeed Hon. John Hay, and he held that office six years. His great learning, ready wit, and geniality made him a favorite in England. And well he might be; for his interest was not confined to the Court and the attractions of London. Accompanied by his daughter, he made frequent tours in the kingdom, entered into the spirit of village life, and especially visited the country schools, where sometimes he catechized the children in a pleasantly humorous way, rewarding the best answers with a little money. In a Fourth-of-July speech in London he said that studies of English manners and institutions took him back to “the time when the dear mother country had not seceded from the common partnership,” and he momentarily took away the breath of his auditors by adding gravely that the way was open for the mother country to come back. When his term of office was ended and he was preparing to return home, every possible honor was conferred upon him. Oxford gave him the degree of D.C.L. as a matter of course; but, most notable of all, he was made a bencher of the Inner Temple, an honor that had not been presented to an American since it was given to five signers of the Declaration of Independence. He received also the freedom of the city of Edinburgh. He was entertained by the Pilgrims Club, Lord Roberts presiding, and bench and bar united in an affectionate farewell. Both of his law partners died during his absence, but on his return he resumed practice. He was now called upon for many public services. At various times he was president of the American Bar Association, the New York State Bar Association, New York City Bar Association, Harvard Law School Association, Harvard Alumni Association, the Union League and Harvard Clubs, the New England Society of New York, and the Pilgrim Society; a governor of the New York Hospital, a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and of the American Museum of Natural History since the foundation of each, vice-president of the American Society for Judicial Settlement of International Disputes, foreign honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, member of the Colonial Society (Mass.), the American Philosophical Society, trustee of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, the New York Life Insurance Company, and director in the German Alliance Insurance Company and the German-American Insurance Company. He was also president of the New York Association for the Blind and of the Board of Managers of the State Charities' Association. On 24 April, 1917, he delivered a notable address at the annual meeting of the members of the Associated Press, in which he said: “If Lincoln were here today, his prayer would be verified and glorified into the prayer that all civilized nations shall now have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from any portion of the earth. Now I think it is not difficult to understand what this war is. It is a war for the preservation of free government throughout the civilized world. And I believe that I may include in that not only free governments of the allied nations and the neutral nations, but of Germany itself.” This same speech contained a specimen of his high magnanimity. From the beginning of the war in Europe his sympathies were ardently with the Allies. Impatient at what was commonly regarded as delay on the part of the Administration, he became a severe critic of President Wilson, and his demand, “For God's sake, hurry up!” echoed throughout the country. But relations with Germany had just been severed, and Mr. Choate remarked: “But now we see what the President was waiting for and how wisely he waited.” Mr. Choate was a lover of peace and of justice secured by peaceful means. At the Second Hague Peace Conference, where he headed the American delegation, he was the champion of every method of abolishing war. In his proposal for compulsory arbitration, which succumbed to the fatal opposition of Germany, he had an impassioned burst about the alternatives to settlement of international disputes by judicial process — a burst which almost has a prophetic air, in view of what has since occurred: “Let us resume all the savage practices of ancient times. Let us sack cities and put their inhabitants to the sword. Let us bombard undefended towns. Let us cast to the winds the rights of security that have been accorded to neutrals. Let us make the sufferings of soldiers and sailors in and after battle as frightful as possible. Let us wipe out all that the Red Cross has accomplished at Geneva, and the whole record of the First Peace Conference at The Hague, and all the negotiations and lofty aspirations that have resulted in the summoning of the present conference.” If since the war he displayed indignation against Germany's reversion to barbarous warfare, it was prompted by his instincts as an international lawyer and a friend of peace. In May, when the city of New York welcomed and fetted the French and British envoys — Marshal Joffre, M. René Viviani, and the Right Honorable Arthur James Balfour — Mr. Choate, as chairman of the Mayor's Committee, was the chief speaker at all the functions. Sunday, 13 May, he attended the services in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and on bidding farewell to Mr. Balfour at the close he said cheerily: “Remember, we shall meet again, to celebrate the victory.” Monday night he was taken seriously ill, and with the words, “I think this is the end,” he passed away. Although he had just recovered from an attack of grippe, he seemed in good health and entered with zest into the various receptions tendered the French and the English war missions. His death, however, due to heart failure, was attributed directly to over-exertion incident to his participation in these many celebrations. It was a shock to the community. Besides the countless tributes of affection and admiration and tokens of gratitude by the civic and benevolent associations in which he was interested in America, it brought expressions of sorrow from every quarter of the globe. President Wilson in his message of sympathy to Mrs. Choate said: “May I not join in expressing what I believe to be the grief of the whole nation at the death of your honored and distinguished husband. The news of it came as a great shock to me, and I wish to carry to you my most heartfelt sympathy.” Among the condolences from abroad was one from King George to Mrs. Choate, which read: “The Queen and I are much distressed to hear of the sudden death of Mr. Choate, whom we knew so well and regarded with a strong feeling of friendsliip and respect. My people will join with me in mourning the loss of your husband.” There were many eulogiums in America. The special memorial meeting of the Union League Club, of which he was a member for fifty years and president in 1873, vibrated with speeches of deep and personal feeling by many of its members, including Charles E. Hughes, president of the club, and Chauncey M. Depew. The resolutions which they adopted characterized him as “eminent in all his walks in life and pre-eminent in the hearts of all his fellow citizens. . . . To Mr. Choate was given the supreme blessing of arriving at the wisdom and distinction of age without revealing the penalties of advancing years. Never did he stand more gracefully or more majestically in the public eye than during those last days when he filled a part exacting and conspicuous in the civic ceremonials of welcome to the allied commissioners of France and England.” The Merchants' Association in an extensive statement said: “For the benefit of those who give or will have the future opportunity to give personal service in civic aflfairs we earnestly commend a study of the life of Joseph Hodges Choate, distinguished lawyer, diplomat, statesman, companion, and friend.” As a mark of honor all the official flags and those on many office buildings, clubs and private residences in New York were lowered to half-mast. Mr. Choate was interested in numerous charities, especially those devoted to the blind, in appreciation of which the school and workshop in Paris for soldiers blinded in battle was named in his honor — the Phare de France-Choate War Memorial, of which he had become president of the committee at its organization soon after the war started. Not only did high officials of the European nations join in tribute at the funeral ceremony in America, but impressive memorial services in his honor were held abroad. In St. Margaret's Church, Westminster, England, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Mr. Choate was a pre-eminently great American citizen, a conspicuous example of what is pure and without reproach in the public civil life of a great country.” At the services in Temple Church, London, the Lord Chief Justice said: “Mr. Choate was a lawyer above everything. He was cradled in the law, loved his profession, and his thoughts were influenced by the study of the law. He was not only an American lawyer but a bencher of the Inner Temple. He also was a great Ambassador and one of the most distinguished citizens of the United States. He is remembered as one who was graceful and eloquent in his orations and dignified and lofty in his more serious utterances. He had charm and humor in his lighter efforts, and throughout all there could always be traced one great ideal, co-operation between our two nations.” Besides the host of distinguished men gathered within St. Bartholomew's Church, New York, at the funeral service, thousands, with bared heads, kept silent vigil outside, while the school children in New York in special assembly were learning the life of their country's first citizen — the highest type of American culture. He was buried in his private cemetery at Stockbridge, and the ceremony was marked by the revival of an ancient burial custom: the body was carried to the grave on a farm wagon covered with branches of laurel and drawn by two horses from his estate, “Naumkeag.” He was married, 16 Oct., 1861, to Caroline Dutcher Sterling, daughter of Frederick A. Sterling, of Cleveland, Ohio, and they were the parents of five children. He is survived by his wife and three children: George, Joseph Hodges, Jr., and Mabel Choate.


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