Joseph H. Choate (1832-1917), a diplomat and lawyer, was considered the quintessential New Englander, though much of his life was spent in New York City at the apogee of America's Gilded Age. As a partner in a successful law practice there, Choate was involved in some of the country's most publicized legal cases during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. President William McKinley named him U.S. ambassador to Great Britain in 1899, where he proved himself a skilled diplomat.
Old New England Name
Choate was the scion of one of Massachusetts's Puritan-era families. An ancestor, John Choate, sailed there from England in 1643, and a number of his descendants had distinguished themselves by the time of Joseph Hodges Choate's birth in 1832. There were farmers of Hog Island, sometimes called Choate Island, in Ipswich Bay of Massachusetts; another served in the state legislator in the 1700s; and a cousin of his father's was a highly regarded U.S. congressman. Choate was born in Salem, where his father was a physician, into a family of five. His education began as a toddler when his brother took him along to a local "dame school," one of New England's informal schoolhouses run by older women. He attended public school later and followed his three older brothers into Harvard College. During the academic year of 1848-49, all four Choate brothers were enrolled at Harvard. Choate joined the Hasty Pudding Club and graduated in 1852 at a ceremony in which his brother William, later a renowned judge, gave the valedictory address; he himself held the rank of class salutatorian.
Choate went on to Harvard Law School, finishing in 1854, and began as an associate with the Boston firm of Hodges and Saltonstall. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in October 1855. Moving to New York City later in the year, he was hired at the firm of Butler, Evarts and Southmayd with a letter of introduction from Rufus Choate, the U.S. senator, and was made partner within five years. As such he earned around $3,000 a year. He became active in city politics and Republican circles and was a staunch opponent of the Tweed Ring that ran City Hall. Choate helped rouse sentiment against the Tweed Ring's flagrant corruption at a public meeting in Cooper Union that took place in September 1871.
Energetic Fundraiser and Board Member
Choate married Caroline Dutcher Sterling of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1861. In his after-work hours, he played a key role in the foundation of some of New York City's finest institutions. He was a member of the founding board of the American Museum of Natural History and a trustee of it until his death. For the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he served as an incorporator and trustee and headed its legal committee and served as board vice president. He was governor of the New York Hospital for forty years and twice president of the board of the New York State Charities Aid Association. Choate's energies were also devoted to the New York Association for the Blind, the American Society for the Judicial Settlement of International Disputes, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for each of which he served in executive posts.
Yet Choate was by profession an attorney and practiced for 55 years. He was involved in a number of prominent or historic cases and earned a reputation as a formidable jury lawyer. He argued in the estate battles of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and former New York governor Samuel J. Tilden and was involved in anti-trust cases involving both the Standard Oil Company and a consortium of tobacco growers and manufacturers. A court-martial case involving General Fitz-John Porter he once claimed was the toughest challenge of his career and his most satisfying victory. Rumor held that he earned $250,000 for an 1895 case argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court that challenged a new income tax law. Choate pointed out that the law was iniquitous, since four-fifths of the revenues collected came from some of the country's wealthiest landowners in the Northeastern states. He declared it opposed the spirit of the preservation of private property on which America had been founded 115 years earlier. "If this law is upheld, the first parapet would be carried, and then it would be easy to overcome the whole fortress on which the rights of the people depend," Choate urged, according to his biography by Strong.
As he rose in prominence, Choate became a gifted and popular after-dinner speaker. He added more board and committee memberships to his schedule of commitments. He served on a commission that made revisions to New York state's judicial system, was elected president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the American Bar Association as well, and was president of the Harvard Alumni Association. He also served as president, at various times, of the prestigious Union League Club, the New England Society of New York, and the Pilgrim Society. As president of the New York Exchange for Women's Work, he was integral to fundraising efforts for a new building, enjoining his audience, "There are said to be twelve hundred millionaires in this city. Their money is corrupting them and their families. Now each of you select your millionaire or millionaires and get this money from them," according to Strong's biography.
Made Irish Enemies
Not surprisingly, Choate was known for a biting wit that sometimes bordered on sarcasm. He earned a fair amount of enmity among Americans of Irish descent for a speech he delivered in 1893 before the St. Patrick's Society of New York. There were many Irish-American politicians in the audience, and the question of Home Rule for Ireland, free of English domination, was a hotly debated topic at the time. In his speech, Choate wondered why so many Irish had succeeded in America, while their counterparts at home had trouble having their demands met. "For what offices, great or small, have the Irishmen not taken? What spoils have they not carried away? But, now that you have done so much for America, now that you have made it all your own, what do you propose to do for Ireland? How long do you propose to let her be the political football of England?" Choate, according to a biography from Theron G. Strong, then told the assembled that they should, with families and fortunes earned, "set your faces homeward" and take Ireland themselves. "It would be a terrible blow to us. It would take us a great while to recover. Feebly, imperfectly, we should look about us and learn, for the first time in seventy-five years, how to govern New York without you."
Later that decade, Choate defended a U.S. Marshal who was serving as a bodyguard to a U.S. Supreme Court justice. The marshal was accused of shooting David Terry, a former judge on California's state supreme court, who had made threats to assassinate Justice Stephen J. Field. Terry had been legal advisor to a woman who tried to make a claim on the estate of a senator and then married her. When Field, then judge of the U.S. Circuit Court in California, delivered his verdict, Terry pulled a knife and was jailed. After his release, he made threats on Field's life and surprised both the judge and his bodyguard on a train one day. The case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Choate's arguments resulted in the marshal's acquittal.
Served Six Years as Ambassador
In 1899 Choate was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James, one of the most coveted of all diplomatic postings, by President McKinley. The appointment aroused an outcry from some Irish-Americans, and one journal termed it "a cruel insult" on the part of McKinley. Choate met both Queen Victoria and her successor, Edward VII. His six years in London were marked by several notable diplomatic achievements, including the settling of a boundary dispute between the United States and Canada over the Alaska Territory. The contested area was near to the gold discoveries of the Klondike in the mid-1890s, and a Joint High Commission in 1898 had failed to reach agreement. A new tribunal was called, consisting of three English jurists and three American counterparts, and Canada was initially confident that Britain would support its claims. Thanks to Choate's work, however, Britain decided that maintaining good relations with the United States was paramount, and the 1903 ruling decided in favor of the American claims.
Choate was also a vital part of settling preliminary negotiations over a planned Panama Canal. The United States desired full control, but the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, between United States and Great Britain, specified that any canal built through the Central American isthmus would be jointly controlled by both nations. U.S. Secretary of State John Hay directed Choate to nullify the terms of that treaty by securing Britain's acquiescence to the American promise that the canal would give ships of all nations free and open passage. Choate also helped with Hay's "Open Door" policy regarding freedom of trade in China. Some European powers were against it, since they had made their own agreements with the Chinese government, but the American ambassador secured Great Britain's acceptance of the free trade agreement.
Active in International Peace Efforts
Choate's time in London was a pleasant and prestigious one, but he was sometimes known to ruffle the more formal English aristocracy. Once, as guest at a manor home, he was reportedly mistaken for a butler by an English aristocrat, who gave the ambassador the command, "Call me a cab," according to Strong's 1917 biography. Choate allegedly replied, "You are a cab." He returned to the United States in 1905, at the age of 73, and devoted his final years to the aims of international peace organizations. In 1907 he headed the American delegation to the Second Hague Conference for the reduction on world armaments. The nations failed to reach an agreement, but many resolutions were adopted regarding laws of war and the rights of neutral shipping during wartime. The conference was a predecessor to the League of Nations and United Nations, formed respectively after each world war.
Choate and his wife celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at their Naumkeag estate in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1911, with a party attended by a thousand guests. Naumkeag, which boasted 26 rooms, was designed by renowned Stanford White as a summer home for the Choates. The home is now a national historic landmark and is open to the public. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Choate was a firm supporter of U.S. intervention. When that occurred in 1917, his distinguished diplomatic career gained him appointment as chair of the New York committee for the reception of the Commissions from England and France. At closing ceremonies on May 13, he told the Earl of Balfour, Britain's Foreign Secretary at the time, "Remember, we meet again to celebrate the victory," but Choate died the next day.
Dictionary of American Biography Base Set, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
Strong, Theron G., Joseph H. Choate: New Englander, New Yorker, Lawyer, Ambassador, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917.