Ranked among the greatest trial lawyers of his era, Rufus Choate (1799-1859) was also an active participant in American politics. His brilliant legal mind and flamboyant oratorical skills helped him win numerous high-profile courtroom battles. As a U.S. representative and senator, Choate opposed sectional extremists and fought for preservation of the Union.
A colorful, somewhat eccentric figure, Rufus Choate earned his greatest renown in the courtrooms of his native Massachusetts. For over 30 years, he dazzled juries with his emotional, yet carefully-reasoned rhetoric, winning victories in some of the most celebrated criminal cases of his day. He combined a scholar's diligence with an actor's feel for drama and audience psychology. An early supporter of the Whig Party, Choate entered public life in the 1820s and went on to serve in both the U.S. House and Senate. Towards the end of his life, he became a forceful advocate of compromise between Northern abolitionists and Southern States Rights partisans. Politics, though, remained secondary to his abiding love for the law. While not identified with any landmark constitutional decisions, Choate was highly regarded for his exceptional intellect, oratorical powers, and personal graciousness.
The fourth of six children, Choate born on Hog Island, off of the Atlantic coast near Essex, Massachusetts. His father David Choate (a Revolutionary War veteran and former teacher) and mother Miriam Foster encouraged his studious nature at an early age. After studying at local schools and at an academy in Hampton, New Hampshire, he went on to enroll at Dartmouth College, graduating in 1819. It was during his Dartmouth years that Choate first gained notice as a public speaker. He delivered an outstanding valedictory address at his class's commencement exercises after suffering a nervous breakdown; among those present was statesman Daniel Webster, who would become a political mentor for Choate in later years.
After going on to study at Dane Law School in Cambridge, Choate worked in the law office of former U.S. Attorney General William Wirt. In 1822, he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar and began his practice in Danvers, near Salem. He soon gained recognition as the most impressive criminal lawyer in his area, renowned for his meticulous preparation in even the most low-paying cases. He matched his thoroughness with a persuasive courtroom speaking style that rarely failed to sway jurors. His ability to touch emotions with humor, sarcasm, and pathos led some to consider him more of a stage performer than a keen legal mind. Among those who disagreed was Webster, who commented to a colleague, "It is a great mistake to suppose that Mr. Choate, in that flowery elocution, does not keep his logic all right. Amid all that pile of flowers there is a strong, firm chain of logic," according to Fuess's biography.
In 1825, Choate married Helen Olcott, the daughter of a Dartmouth board of trustees member. That same year, he was elected to the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court. Two years later, he was elected to the State Senate and, in 1830, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. An opponent of President Andrew Jackson's policies, he aligned himself with Webster, Henry Clay, and other leaders of the National Republican Party. After his re-election in 1832, he resigned his seat and relocated with his family to Boston. In the midst of a thriving law practice, he worked to organize the Whig Party in his state in opposition to the Democrats. He was sent to the U.S. Senate in 1841, completing the term of Webster, who had become Secretary of State in President William Henry Harrison's cabinet. In the Senate, Choate supported the protective tariff and opposed annexation of Texas. He unsuccessfully worked to heal the rift between President John Tyler and his fellow Whigs over the chartering of a national bank. Eager to return to the law, he left the Senate in 1845. Fuess's biography includes Choate's comment: "If I could be permanently and happily in the Senate," he told a friend, "I should like that better than anything in the world; but to be just enough in the Senate to be out of the law, and not enough in the Senate to be a leader in politics, is a sort of half-and-half business very contemptible."
In partnership with B.F. Crowninshield and, later, his son-in-law Joseph M. Bell, Choate rose to the front ranks of the Boston bar during the 1840s. His most celebrated cases included his successful defense of Albert Terrill, accused of murder and arson. During the trial, Choate advanced the theory that his client committed his acts of violence while sleepwalking, the first use of such a defense in U.S. history. He also gained an acquittal for a Roman Catholic priest charged with assault from a Protestant jury during a time of widespread prejudice against Catholics in Massachusetts. A tireless worker, he took on cases from rich and poor alike, with the ability to pay largely irrelevant. Some criticized him for defending the obviously guilty. Political foe Wendell Philips, as quoted in Fuess's biography, referred to him as someone "who made it safe to murder, and of whose health thieves asked before they began to steal." Whatever the moral implications, there was no disputing his abilities as a legal advocate. His contemporary Edwin P. Whipple remarked on Choate's "imaginative power of transforming himself into the personalities of his clients, of surveying acts and incidents from their point of view … He not only could go in, but could get out of, every individuality he assumed for the time."
Beyond the courtroom, Choate was considered one of the great public speakers of the pre-Civil War era. His rich, intricate speeches were delivered in a dynamic, well-modulated voice embellished with dramatic gestures. His role models were such Greek and Latin orators as Demosthenes and Cicero. Even by the standards of his time, his sentences were lengthy—his 1853 eulogy of Webster included one that ran to four pages and took ten minutes to deliver. Remarkably, he could maintain his clarity of expression even during such unwieldy passages. His most famous addresses included "The Age of the Pilgrims," "The Romance of the Sea," and "The Eloquence of Revolutionary Periods." Choate's appearance added to the striking effect of his words. His unkempt hair, deep-set eyes, and grim expression were accentuated by his nervous manner and carelessly-chosen clothing. Chronically overworking, he was subject to excruciating headaches, particularly after delivering an important speech. Intense to the point of mania, his personal oddities did not interfere with his ability to move lecture audiences to tears.
Choate refused public honors after leaving the U.S. Senate. He turned down a seat on the bench of the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts and, in 1851, took himself out of consideration for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. He did re-enter the public eye as a defender of the Compromise of 1850 and an opponent of anti-slavery agitation. While morally opposed to slavery, he supported his friend Webster in promoting peace between North and South and saw abolitionism as dangerous. At the 1852 Whig convention in Baltimore, he delivered a memorable (though futile) nominating speech for Webster. Choate remained a supporter of the Whig Party until its demise in 1855. He was unwilling to join the newly-launched Republican Party, viewing it as sectional and disunionist. In the 1856 presidential campaign, he announced his support of Democrat James Buchanan over Republican John C. Fremont, a move that angered many of his former Whig allies in Massachusetts.
In 1855, Choate injured his knee while trying a court case. The resulting surgery led to a decline in his health and vitality, with Bright's Disease a contributing factor. On the advice of his physician, he sailed to Europe with his son in 1859. His condition worsened during the voyage and, after landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he died on July 13. He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston. Choate was widely mourned as a man of integrity and generosity, a dedicated legal professional with a poet's gift for language. His unwillingness to seek a leadership role in American politics kept him from achieving the stature of a Webster or Clay. He is best remembered by historians as an attorney of great distinction and an orator of brilliance.
Fuess, Claude M., Rufus Choate, Milton, Balch & Co., 1928.Reprint. Archon, 1970.
Holt, Michael F., The Rise and Fall of the Whig Party, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Matthews, Jean V., Rufus Choate, Temple University Press, 1980.
Whipple, Edwin P., Recollections of Eminent Men, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1892.
"Choate, Rufus, 1799-1859," Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov (February 1, 2002). □