Rufus Choate.

The works of Rufus Choate, with a memoir of his life online

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ism, on whose heart her love has burned in youth, in man-
hood, ever bright as on an altar, — his Humanity, in whose
regards this cup of water, pressed to the lip of the wounded
prisoner, is a sweeter memory than the earthquake voice of
many campaigns of victory !

" There are three more traits of his character, three more
fruits of his election, which the authors of this Gift discern
and appreciate.


" They expect, first, that his will be an administration of
honorable peace. The experiences of war have more than
sated him of that form of duty and that source of fame.
From many a bloody day and field — too many — he turns to
win a victory of peace. He seeks to set on that brow a gar-
land — amaranthine and blameless — compared to which the
laurels that a Csesar reaps are weeds

" They expect, next, that his administration will be illus-
trated by the true progress of America. . . . They expect
to see it cooperating, as far as it may, with the spirit of
Humanity in achieving the utmost measure of good, of great-
ness, of amelioration, of happiness, of which philanthropy and
patriotism may dare to dream. And thus they look to an ad-
ministration of progress. But progress, in their view and in
yours, does not consist, and is not exemplified, in adding, every
three or four years, to our already imperial area, a country three
times larger than all France, and leaving it a desert ; but in
decorating and building up what we have. Their idea of prog-
ress, therefore, and yours, embraces a twofold sentiment, and
a twofold exertion : first, to improve the land and water, — to
bring out the material resources of America ; and next, to im-
prove the mind and heart of America ; diffusing thus over her
giant limbs and features the glow and grace of moral beauty
— as morning spread upon the mountains

" They expect, finally, that his administration will be memo-
rable for having strengthened and brightened the golden chain
of the American Union. They expect that, under the sobriety
of his patriotism, that Union will neither be sapped by the ex-
pansion of our area, until identity, nationality, and the possibil-
ity of all cohesion of the members are lost, nor rent asunder by
the desperate and profligate device of geographical parties. —
They and we. Sir, of that Union, deem all alike. We too
stand by the shipping-articles and the ship the whole voyage
round. We hold that no increase of our country's area, —
although we hope never to see another acre added to it; no
transfer and no location of our centre of national power, — al-
though we hope never to see it leave the place where now it
is; no accession of new stars on our sky — were they, to
come in constellations, thronging, till the firmament were in
a blaze; that none of these things should have power to


whisper to one of us a temptation to treason. We go for the
Union to the last beat of the pulse and the last drop of blood.
We know and feel that there — there — in that endeared
name — beneath that charmed Flag — among those old glori-
ous graves, in that ample and that secure renown, — that there
we have garnered up our hearts — there loe must either live,
or hear no life. With our sisters of the Republic, less or
niore, we would live and we would die, — ' one hope, one lot,
one life, one glory.' "

The subsequent election of General Taylor gave to Mr.
Choate the greatest delight. It seemed to him, indeed, a
triumph of Honor, Patriotism, Humanity. On the evening
when the intelligence was received that made the matter cer-
tain, he said to a friend who called to see him : — "Is not this
sweet ? Is it not sweet % The whole country seems to me a
garden to-night, from Maine to New Orleans. It is fragrant
all over, and I am breathing the whole perfume."

About this time a position as Professor in the Law School
at Cambridge was urged upon Mr. Choate in a manner so sin-
cere, so unusual and so honorable to all parties, that I am es-
pecially glad to be permitted to present the facts in the words
of one who knew them familiarly, — the late Chief Justice

" After the reorganization of the Law School at Harvard
College, by the large donation of Mr. Dane, and- the appoint-
ment of Mr. Justice Story as Dane Professor, the school ac-
quired a high reputation throughout the United States. It was
regarded as an institution to which young men could be bene-
ficially sent from every part of the country to be thoroughly
trained in the general principles of jurisprudence, and the
elementary doctrines of the common law, which underlie the
jurisprudence of all the States, This reputation, which is be-
lieved to be well founded, was attributable, in a great measure,
to the peculiar qualifications, and to the efficient services of
Judge Story, in performing the duties of his professorship.
It was not so much by his profound and exact knowledge of
the law in all its departments, nor by his extensive knowledge
of books, ancient and modern, that the students were benefit-
ed, as by his earnest and almost impetuous eloquence, the ful-
ness and clearness of his illustrations with which he awakened


the aspirations, and impressed the minds, of his youthful hear-
ers. He also demonstrated in his own person how much may
be accomplished by a man of extraordinary talent and untiring
industry, — having successfully and faithfully performed the
duties of his professorship, being engaged at the same time
in two other departments of intellectual labor, that of Judge of
the Supreme Court of the United States, and author of elab-
orate treatises on the science and practice of law, — each of
which would seem sufficient to require the exclusive attention
of a very industrious man.

" Some time after the decease of Judge Story, whether im-
mediately, or after the lapse of two or three years, I do not know,
but as near as I recollect, about the year 1848, the attention
of the President and Fellows of Harvard College was turned
to Mr. Choate, at once an eminent jurist and an advocate con-
spicuous for his commanding and persuasive eloquence, whose
services, if they could be obtained, would render him eminently
of use in the Dane Law School. Indeed he was too promi-
nent a public man to be overlooked, as a candidate ofi'ering
powers of surpassing fitness for such a station. But it was
never supposed by the Corporation, that the comparatively re-
tired position of a College Professor, and the ordinary, though
pretty liberal emoluments of such an office, could induce Mr.
Choate to renounce all the honors and profits of the legal pro-
fession which rightly belonged to him, as Leader of the Bar
in every department of forensic eloquence. But about the
time alluded to Mr. Choate having retired from political life,
was apparently devoting himself ardently and exclusively to
the profession of the law as a jurist and advocate. It was
thought by the Corporation that a scheme might be arranged,
if it suited his tastes and satisfied his expectations of pro-
fessional eminence, which would secure to the Law School
of the University the benefit of his great talents, place him
conspicuously before the whole country, and afford to him-
self the immunities and the reputation of a great jurist and

" It was the opinion of the members of the Corporation,
that in appointing instructors for an academical institution, de-
signed to instruct young men in the science of jurisprudence,
and in part to fit them for actual practice in the administration


of the law in courts of justice, (an opinion I believe, which they
hold in common with many who have most reflected on the
means of acquiring a legal education,) it is not desirable that an
instructor in such institution should be wholly withdrawn from
practice in courts. Law is an art as well as a science. Whilst
it has its foundation in a broad and comprehensive morality,
and in profound and exact science, to be adapted to actual use
in controlling and regulating the concerns of social life, it
must have its artistic skill which can only be acquired by ha-
bitual practice in courts of justice. A man may be a laborious
student, have an inquiring and discriminating mind, and have
all the advantage which a library of the best books can aflFord,
and yet, without actual attendance on courts, and the means
and facilities which practice affords, he would be little prepared
either to try questions of fact, or argue questions of law. The
instructor, therefore, who to some extent maintains his famil-
iarity with actual practice, by an occasional attendance as an
advocate in courts of justice, would be better prepared to train
the studies and form the mental habits of young men designed
for the Bar.

" No formal application was made to Mr. Choate, but a plan
was ' informally suggested to him, with the sanction of the
Corporation, and explained in conversation substantially to the
following effect: According to the plan of the Law School
of the College, there are two terms or sessions in the year, of
about twenty weeks each, with vacations intervening of about
six weeks each. The first or Autumn term commences about
the 1st of September, and closes near the middle of January;
the Spring term commences about the 1st of March, and con-
tinues to July. The elxercises during term-time consist of
daily lectures and recitations, conducted by the several pro-
fessors, of moot courts for the discussion of questions of
law, deliberative oral discussions, in the nature of legislative
debates ; some written exercises also, on questions and sub-
jects proposed, make up the course of training. Instructions
in these exercises were given in nearly equal proportions by
three professors, of whom the Dane Professor was one. The
moot courts and deliberative discussions were uniformly pre-
sided over by one of the professors.

" At the time referred to, the Supreme Court of the United


States commenced their annual session the first week in De-
cember, and continued to about the middle of March. It was
thought, that without any perceptible derangement of the
course of instruction in the Law School, the duties of the
Dane Professorship might be so modified as to enable Mr.
Choate to attend the Supreme Court of the United States at
Washington during their whole term. The duties of the three
professors are not such as to require the attendance of each,
on every day of the term ; nor is it essential that the differ-
ent departments of the duties assigned to them respectively
should be taken up in any exact order. Then by an ar-
rangement with the other professors, the subjects specially
committed to the Dane Professor, and his proportion of all
other duties, might be taken up and finished in the early part
of the Autumn term, so that without detriment to the instruc-
tion, he might leave it several weeks before its termination,
and in like manner, postpone them a few weeks at the com-
mencement of the Spring term, so that with the six weeks'
vacation in mid-winter, these curtailments from the two terms
would equal in length of time that of the entire session of the
National Supreme Court.

" The advantages to Mr. Choate seemed obvious. When it
was previously known that he might be depended on to at-
tend at the entire term of the Supreme Court, we supposed he
would receive a retainer in a large proportion of the cases
which would go up from New England, and in many impor-
tant causes from all the other States. The effect of this prac-
tice upon the emoluments of his profession might be antici-
pated. No case, we beheve, whether in law, equity, or ad-
miralty, can reach the Supreme Court of the United States
until the case, that is, a statement of all the facts on which
questions may arise, is reduced to writing in some form, em-
braced in the record.

" He would therefore have ample opportunity, with his case
before him, and with the use of the best Law Library in the
country, and the assistance of a class of young men ever eager
to aid in seeking and applying authorities, and proposing
cases for argument, to avail himself of all the leisure desir-
able at his own chambers, to study his cases thoroughly, and
prepare himself for his arguments. The extent to which such


a practice with such means would soon add to the solid rep-
utation of Mr. Choate, may easily be conceived, especially by
those who knew the strength of his intellectual power, and the
keenness of his faculty for discrimination. The advantages
to the Law School contemplated by this arrangement were,
that Mr. Choate would not only bring to the institution
the persuasive eloquence, and the profound legal learning
which he then possessed, but by an habitual practice in one
of the highest tribunals in the world, a tribunal which has
jurisdiction of more important public and private rights than
any other, he would keep up with all the changes of the
times, in jurisprudence and legislation, and bring to the
service of his pupils the products of a constantly growing

" But this plan, in the judgment of the Corporation, neces-
sarily involved Mr. Choate's residence at Cambridge, and an
entire renunciation of all jury trials, and all other practice in
courts, except occasionally a law argument before the Supreme
Court of the State at Boston or Cambridge, each being within
a short distance of his home. It has been considered impor-
tant by the Corporation that the Professors of the Law
School should reside in Cambridge, to aflford thereby the ben-
efit of their aid and counsel in the small number composing
the Law Faculty. In the case of Mr. Choate, it was consid-
ered quite indispensable that he should reside in Cambridge,
on account of the influence which his genial manners, his
habitual presence, and the force of his character would be
likely to exert over the young men drawn from every part of
the United States to listen to his instructions. There was
another consideration leading, in Mr. Choate's case, to the
same result, which was, that the breaking oflFfrom the former
scenes of his labors and triumphs, so necessary to his success
in the plan proposed, would be more effectually accomplished
by his establishing at once a new residence, and contracting
new habits. Both considerations had great weight in indu-
cing those who communicated with Mr. Choate, to urge his'
removal to Cambridge, and the fixing there of his future resi-
dence, as essential features of the arrangement.

" Mr. Choate listened attentively to these proposals and dis-
cussed them freely ; he was apparently much pleased with the


brilliant and somewhat attractive prospect presented to him by
this overture. He did not immediately decline the ofier, but
proposed to take it into consideration. Some time after, per-
haps a week, he informed me that he could not accede to the
proposal. He did not state to me his reasons, or if he did,
I do not recollect them."

It was not far from this time, also, that Mr. Choate received
from Gov. Briggs the honorable oSer of a seat upon the bench
of the Supreme Court. It was urged upon him by some of
his friends, as afibrding him the rest which he seemed to need.
But he felt that he could hardly afford to take it, and after due
consideration, respectfully declined.

In March of this year — 1 849 — he delivered before the
Mercantile Library Association the closing lecture of the win-
ter course. The first two volumes of Mr. Macaulay's bril-
liant history had been but recently published ; and availing
himself of the newly awakened interest, he chose for his sub-
ject one always fresh to himself, " Thoughts on the New
England Puritans." A short extract, comparing the public
life of that day with ours, will indicate the tone and spirit
of the whole.

" In inspecting a little more closely the colonial period of
1688, than heretofore I ever had done, it has seemed to me
that the life of an able, prominent, and educated man of
that day in Massachusetts was a life of a great deal more
dignity, interest, and enjoyment than we are apt to imagine ;
that it would compare quite advantageously with the life of
an equally prominent, able, and educated man in Massachu-
setts now. We look into the upper life of Old England in
1688, stirred by the scenes — kindled and lifted up by the
passions of a great action — the dethronement of a king;
the crowning of a king ; the vindication and settlement of
English liberty ; the reform of the English constitution, —
parent of more reform and of progress without end, — and
we are dazzled. Renown and grace are there ; the glories
of the Augustan age of English letters, just dawning ; New-
ton first unrolling the system of the Universe ; the schoolboy
dreamings of Pope and Addison ; the beautiful eloquence and
more beautiful public character of Somers waiting to receive


that exquisite dedication of the Spectator ; the serene and
fair large brow of Marlborough, on which the laurels of
Blenheim and Malplaquet had not yet clustered. We turn
to the Colonial life of the same day, and it seems at first as
if it could not have been borne for half an hour. What a
time of small things, to be sure, at first it appears to be.
The sweet pathos, the heroical interest of the landing at Ply-
mouth, of the journey to Charlestown, are gone; the grander
excitations of the age of Independence are not yet begun to
be felt ; hard living ; austere manners ; provincial and paro-
chial insignificance ; stupendous fabrics of witchcraft, and dis-
putes of grace and works ; little tormentings of Quakers and
Antinomians ; synods to build platforms, on which nothing
would stand; fast days for sins which there was no possi-
bility to commit, and thanksgivings for mercies never re-
ceived; these at first sight seem to be the Massachusetts
life of that day. But look a little closer. Take the instance
of an educated public man of Massachusetts about the year
1688, — a governor; a magistrate; an alumnus of Harvard
College, learned in the learning of his time ; a foremost
man, — and trace him through a day of his life. Observe
the variety and dignity of his employments ; the weight of
his cares ; the range of his train of thought ; his resources
against ennui and satiety ; on what aliment his spiritual and
intellectual nature could feed; appreciate his past, his pres-
ent, and his future, and see if you are quite sure that a man
of equal ability, prominence and learning is as high or as
happy now.

" First, last, midst, of all the elements of interest in the life
of such a man was this : that it was in a just and grand
sense, a public life. He was a public man. And what sort
of a public man, — what doing in that capacity 1 This ex-
actly. He was, he felt himself to be — and here lay the
felicity of his lot, — he was in the very act of building up
a new nation where no nation was before. The work was
in the very process of doing from day to day, from hour to
hour. Every day it was changing its form under his eye
and under his hand. Instead of being born ignominiously
into an established order of things, a recognized and stable
State, to the duties of mere conservation, and the rewards


of mere enjoyment, his function he felt to be that rarer,
more heroical, more epic — to plant, to found, to construct
a new State upon the waste of earth. He felt himself to
be of the conditores imperioriim. Imperial labors were his;
imperial results were his. Whether the State, (that grand-
est of the works of man — grander than the Pyramids, or
Iliads, or systems of the Stars!) — ^ whether the State should
last a year or a thousand years, — whether it should be
contracted within lines three miles north of the Merrimack,
three miles south of the Charles, and a little east of the
Hudson, or spread to the hep-d waters of the Aroostook,
and St. John, and the springs of the Merrimack among the
crystal hills of New England, and to the great sea on the
west ; — whether a Stuart and a Papist king of England
should grasp its charter, or the bayonet or tomahawk of
French or Indians quench its life ; — whether if it outlived,
as Jeremy Taylor has said, ' the chances of a child,' it should
grow up to be one day a pious, learned, well-ordered, and
law-abiding Commonwealth ; a freer and more beautiful Eng-
land; a less tumultuary and not less tasteful Athens; a larger
and more tolerant Geneva ; or a school of prophets — a gar-
den of God — a praise — a glory; all this seemed to such
a man as I have described, as he awoke in the morning, to
depend appreciably and consciously on what he might do or
omit to do, before he laid his head on his pillow that very
night. Public hfe in Massachusetts that day did not con-
sist in sending or being sent to Congress with a dozen asso-
ciates, to be voted down in a body of delegates representing
half of North America. Still less was it a life of leisure
and epicureanism. This man of whom I speak, within the
compass of a single twenty-four hours, might have to cor-
respond with Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Plymouth Col-
ony, and the Royal Government of New Hampshire, upon
the subject of boundary lines, — the boundary lines of States,
as against one another wholly independent, — a dignified and
historical deliberation; to collate and to draw practical con-
clusions from all manner of contradictory information touch-
ing movements of Indians at Casco Bay and the Penobscot ;
to confer with Sir William Phipps about the raising of troops
to attack Port Royal or Qiiebec ; to instruct the agent of the

VflT.. T. 12


Colony, who was to sail for England next morning, to watch
the course of the struggle between the last of the Stuarts,
the people of England, and the Prince of Orange, or to
meditate his report from London ; to draw up a politic,
legal, and skilful address to his king's most excellent and
blessed majesty, to show that we had not forfeited the life
of the charter and the birthright of English souls ; to take
counsel on the state of the free schools, the university, and
the law ; to communicate with some learned judge on the
composition of our decennial twelve tables of the jurispru-
dence of liberty; to communicate with learned divines — the
ardent Mathers, father, and son, and with Brattle — on the
ecclesiastical well-being of the State, the aspects of Papacy
and Episcopacy, the agencies of the invisible world, the crises
of Congregationalism, the backslidings of faith for life, and
all those wayward tendencies of opinion, which, with fear of
change, perplexed the church.

Compare with the life of such an one the life of a Mas-
sachusetts public man of this day. How crowded that was ;
how burthened with individual responsibility ; how oppressed
with large interests ; how far more palpable and real the
influence ; how much higher and wider the topics ; how far
grander the cares ! Why, take the highest and best Mas-
sachusetts public men of all among us. Take his Excellency.
What has he to do with French at Port Royal, or Indians
at Saco, or Dutch on the Hudson "? How much sleep does
he lose from fear that the next steamer will bring news
that the Crown of England has repealed the Constitution
of Massachusetts'! When will he lie awake at dead of
night to see Cotton Mather drawing his curtain — pale as
the ghost of Banquo — to tell him that witchcraft is cele-
brating pale Hecate's ofierings at Danvers ] Where is it
now — the grand, peculiar charm — that belongs ever to the
era and the act, of the planting and infancy of a State?
Where — where now — those tears of bearded men; the
faded cheek ; the throbbing heart ; the brow all furrowed
with imperial lines of policy and care, — that give the seed
to earth, whose harvest shall be reaped when some genera-
tions are come and gone 1 "

During the summer of the same year, the Phillips Will Case,


as it was called, was argued by him at Ipswich. It involved
the disposal of nearly a million of dollars. The will was dated
at Nahant, where Mr. Phillips had his residence, October 9,
184i7. He soon after left for Europe, and the next year, hav-

Online LibraryRufus ChoateThe works of Rufus Choate, with a memoir of his life → online text (page 15 of 57)