Rufus Choate.

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

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word, the unexpected answer at the corner of the street, the
remark whispered over the back of his chair while the docket
was calling, you repeated to the next man you met, and he to
the next, and in a few days it became the anecdote of the
town. When as lawyers we met together, in tedious hours,
and sought to entertain ourselves, we found we did better with
anecdotes of Mr. Choate than on our own original resources.

" Beside his eloquence, his logical power, and his wit, he
possessed deep and varied learning. His learning was accu-
rate, too. He could put his hand on any Massachusetts case
as quick as the judge who decided it.

" But if I were asked to name that which I regard as his
characteristic, — that in which he differed from other learned,
logical, and eloquent men of great eminence, — I should say
it was his aesthetic nature.

" Even under the excitement of this moment, I should not
compare his mind in the point of mere force of understanding
(and, indeed, he would not have tolerated such a comparison)
with Daniel Webster ; and yet I think we have a right to say
that, in his aesthetic nature, he possessed something to which
the minds of Franklin, Adams, Dexter, Mason, and Webster,
were strangers.

" But I ask pardon of the bar. I am not desirous of mak-
ing these comparisons.

" I need not say. Sir, Rufus Choate was a great lawyer, a
great jurist, a great publicist, but more than all that — and I
speak of that which I know — his nature partook strongly of
the poetic element. It was not something which he could put
on or off, but it was born with him — I will not say died with
him, but is translated with him.

" Shakspeare was his great author. I would have defied
even the Shakspeare scholar to refer to any passage of Shak-
speare that Mr. Choate would not have recognized instantly.


Next to Shakspeare, I think I have a right to say he thought
that he owed more to Wordsworth than to any other poet.
He studied him hefore it was the fashion, and before his high
position had been vindicated.

" Then he was, of course, a great student of Milton, and
after that, I think that those poets who gained the affections
of his youth, and wrote when he was young, — Byron, Scott,
Coleridge, Southey, — had his affections chiefly; though, of
course, he read and valued and studied Spencer and Dryden,
and, as a satirist and a maker of epigrams, Pope. This love
of poetry with him was genuine and true. He read and
studied always, not with a view to make ornaments for his
speeches, but because his nature drew him to it. We all
know he was a fine Greek and Latin scholar ; was accurate ;
he never made a false quantity. Who ever detected him in a
misquotation 1 He once told me he never allowed a day to
go by that he did not write out a translation from some Greek
or Latin author. This was one of the means by which he
gained his affluence of language. Of Cicero he was a fre-
quent student, particularly of his ethical and philosophical
writings. But Greek was his favorite tongue.

" One word more, Sir: It is not so generally known, I sup-
pose, of Mr. Choate, that, certainly during the last ten years
of his life he gave much of his thoughts to those noble and
elevating problems which relate to the nature and destiny of
man, to the nature of God, to the great hereafter ; recogniz-
ing. Sir, that great truth — so beautifully expressed in his
favorite tongue — in sacred writ, Ta /i^ /SAcTrdytteva auavia — things
not seen are eternal. He studied not merely psychology ; he
knew well the great schools of philosophy ; he knew well
their characteristics, and read their leading men. I suspect
he was the first man in this community who read Sir William
Hamilton, and Mansell's work on ' The Limits of Religious
Thought;' and I doubt if the Chairs of Harvard and Yale
were more familiar with the English and German mind, and
their views on these great problems, than Mr. Choate.

" He carried his study even into technical theology. He
knew its genius and spirit better than many divines. He
knew in detail the great dogmas of St. Augustine ; and he
studied and knew John Calvin and Luther. He knew the

1858-1859.] ADDRESS OF HON. B. K. CURTIS. Q^J

great principles which lie at the foundation of Catholic theology
and institutions, and the theology of the Evangelical school ;
and he knew and studied the rationalistic writings of the Ger-
mans, and was familiar with their theories and characteristics.

" With all those persons whom he met and who he felt,
with reasonable contidence, had sufficient elevation to value
these subjects, he conversed upon them freely. But beyond
this — as to his opinions, his results — I have no right to
speak. I only wished to allude to a few of the more promi-
nent of his characteristics ; and it is peculiarly gratifying to
remember, at this moment, that he had the elevation of mind
so to lay hold upon the greatest of all subjects.

" I meant to have spoken of his studies of the English
prose writers, among whom Bacon and Burke had his prefer-
ence. But he read them all, and loved to read them all ; from
the scholastic stateliness of Milton, warring for the right of
expressing thoughts for all ages, to the simplicity of Cowper's

" But all this is gone for us ! We are never to see him
again in the places that knew him. To think that he, of all
men, who loved his home so, should have died among strang-
ers ! That he, of all men, should have died under a foreign
flag ! I can go no further. I can only call upon all to bear
witness now, and to the next generation, that he stood before
us an example of eminence in science, in erudition, in genius,
in taste, — in honor, in generosity, in humanity, — in every
liberal sentiment, and every liberal accomplishment."

[Sept. 20, 1859.]

" May it please your Honor :

" I have been directed by the Bar of the county of Suffolk,
to present to the Supreme Judicial Court certain resolutions
adopted by them, upon the decease of their lamented and dis-
tinguished brother, Rufus Choate, and to request the Court to
have these resolutions entered on record here. They were
adopted at a meeting of the members of this bar, held in this
place on the 19th day of July last, since which time the Su-



preme Judicial Court is now first in session for the business of
the County of Suffolk. With the leave of the Court I will ask
the clerk to read the resolutions. [The clerk read the resolu-
tions, which have been published heretofore.]

" This is not the occasion, nor is it devolved on me, to pro-
nounce a eulogy on the subject of these resolutions, whose
death in the midst of his brilliant and important career has
made so profound an impression on his brethren of the bar
and of the community at large. The Court will have noticed
that by one of the resolutions I have read, other suitable pro-
vision has been made for that tribute of respect to him, and
for doing justice to their sense of their own and the public
loss. But the relations which Mr. Choate long sustained to
this Court have been too conspicuous and too important to
me to be wholly silent here respecting them. The bench and
the bar are mutually dependent on each other for that coopera-
tion which is essential to the steady, prompt, and successful dis-
tribution of justice. Without the assistance and support of a
learned, industrious, able, and honest bar, it is not too much to
say that no bench in this country can sustain itself, and its most
strenuous exertions can result only in a halting and uncertain
course of justice. Without a learned, patient, just, and cour-
ageous bench, there will not for any long time continue to be a
bar fitted for its high and difficult duties.

" When, therefore, one of their number, who for many years
has exerted his great and brilliant powers in this forum, has
been removed by death, we feel that in its annunciation to this
Court, we make known a fact of importance to itself, and^ that
we may be sure of its sympathy, and of its appreciation of
what is indeed a common loss. You have witnessed his labors
and know how strenuous, how frequent, how great, how de-
voted to his duty they have been. You have been instructed
by his learning and relieved by his analysis of complicated
controversies. You have doubtless been delighted by his elo-
quence and informed and interested by the fruits of his rich
and liberal culture. And when his brethren of the bar come
here to make known their sense of their loss, they cannot be
unmindful that to you also it is a loss, not in one day to be

" We are aware that it has sometimes been thought, and by

1858-1859.] ADDKESS OF HON. B. R. CURTIS. 359

the thoughtless or inexperienced often said, that from his lips
' With fatal sweetness elocution flowed.' But they who have
thought or said this, have but an imperfect notion of the na-
ture of our judicial controversies, or of the ability for the dis-
covery of truth and justice which may be expected here.

" Such persons begin with the false assumption that in the
complicated cases which are brought to trial here, one party is
altogether right and the other altogether wrong. They are
ignorant, that in nearly all cases there is truth and justice and
law on both sides ; that it is for the tribunal to discover how
much of these belongs to each, and to balance them, and ascer-
tain which preponderates ; and that so artificial are the greater
portion of our social rights, and so complex the facts on which
they depend, that it is only by means of such an investigation
and decision that it can be certainly known on which side the
real justice is. That, consequently, it is the duty of the advo-
cate to manifest and enforce all the elements of justice, truth,
and law which exist on one side, and to take care that no false
appearances of those great realities are exhibited on the other.
That while the zealous discharge of this duty is consistent with
the most devoted loyalty to truth and justice, it calls for the
exertion of the highest attainments and powers of the lawyer
and the advocate, in favor of the particular party whose inter-
ests have been intrusted to his care. And if from eloquence
and learning and skill and laborious preparation and ceaseless
vigilance, so preeminent as in Mr. Choate, there might seem to
be danger that the scales might incline to the wrong side, some
compensation would be made by the increased exertion to which
that seeming danger would naturally incite his opponents ; and
I am happy to believe, what he believed, that as complete secu-
rity against wrong as the nature of human institutions will per-
mit, has always been found in the steadiness, intelligence, love
of justice, and legal learning of the tribunal by which law and
fact are here finally determined.

" I desire, therefore, on this occasion, and in this presence,
and in behalf of my brethren of this bar, to declare our ap-
preciation of the injustice which would be done to this great
and eloquent advocate by attributing to him any want of loy-
alty to truth, or any deference to wrong, because he employed
all his great powers and attainments, and used to the utmost his


consummate skill and eloquence, in exhibiting and enforcing
the comparative merits of one side of the cases in which he
acted. In doing so he but did his duty. If other people
did theirs, the administration of justice was secured.

" A trial in a court of justice has been fitly termed a drama
in which the actors, the events, and the passions were all reali-
ties ; and of the parts which the members of the legal profes-
sion play therein, it was once said, by one who, I think, should
have known better, that they are brawlers for hire. I believe
the charge can have no general application ■ — certainly not to
those who, within my experience, have practised at this bar,
where good manners have been as common as good learning.
At all events, he of whom I speak was a signal example that
all lawyers are not brawlers.

" For, among other things most worthy to be remembered
of him, he showed, in the most convincing manner, that fo-
rensic strife is consistent with uniform personal kindness and
gentleness of demeanor ; that mere smartness, or aggressive
and irritating captiousness, have nothing to do with the most
effective conduct of a cause ; that the business of an advocate
is with the law and the evidence, and not in provoking or
humbling an opponent ; that wrangling, and the irritations
which spring from it, obstruct the course of justice ; and are
indeed twice cursed, for they injure him who gives and him
who receives.

" I am sure I shall have the concurrence of the Court when
I say, that among all Mr. Choate's extraordinary gifts of nat-
ure and graces of art, there was nothing more remarkable than
the sweetness of his temper and the courtesy of his manners,
both to the bench and the bar. However eager might be the
strife, however exhausting the toil, however anxious the care,
— these were never lost. The recollection of them is now in
all our hearts.

" I need not repeat that I shall make no attempt to draw
even an outline of the qualities and attainments and powers of
this great advocate. Under any circumstances I should dis-
trust my own ability for the work, and as I have already said,
it is not expected of me here.

"I have simply to move this Honorable Court to receive
these resolutions, and direct them to be entered of record."


In accordance with the vote of the Suffolk Bar, the resolu-
tions were presented to the United States District Court by
the District Attorney, and the following reply was made by
Mr. Justice Sprague : —

" Notwithstanding the time that has elapsed since the death
of Mr. Choate, and the numerous demonstrations of respect
by the bar, by judicial tribunals, deliberative bodies, and pop-
ular assemblies, still it is proper that such an event should not
pass unnoticed in this court. Others have spoken fully and,
eloquently of his eminence and excellence in various depart-
ments ; we may here at least appropriately say something of
him as a lawyer and an advocate. His life was mainly devoted
to the practice of his profession, and this court was the scene
of many of his greatest efforts and highest achievements. I
believe him to have been the most accomplished advocate that
this country has produced. With extraordinary genius he
united unremitted industry, devoted almost exclusively to the
law, and to those literary studies which tend most directly to
accomplish and perfect the orator and the advocate. The
result was wonderful. His command of language was un-
equalled. I certainly have heard no one who approached him
in the richness of his vocabulary. This wealth he used pro-
fusely, but with a discrimination, a felicity of expression, and
an ease and flow, which was truly marvellous. Although to the
careless or unintelligent hearer his words would sometimes
seem to be in excess, yet to the attentive and cultivated every
word had its appropriate place and its shade of meaning, con-
ducing more or less to the perfection of the picture. To those
who heard Mr. Choate for the first time, it would seem as
though this ready outpouring of choice and expressive lan-
guage must be the result of special preparation. But those
who have heard him often, especially in those unforeseen emer-
gencies which so frequently arise in the trial of causes, knew
that the stream, which was so full and clear and brilliant,
gushed forth from a fountain as exhaustless as Nature.

' Rustious expeotat dum defluat atnnis,
At ille labitur, et labetur in omne Yolubilis sevum.'

"But it is not to be understood by any means that Mr.
Choate's highest merit consisted in his rhetoric. That, indeed,


was the most striking. But those who had most profoundly
considered and mastered the subject, saw that the matter of
his discourse, the thought, was worthy of the drapery with
which it was clothed. His mind was at once comprehensive
and acute. No judicial question was too enlarged for its
vision, and none too minute for its analysis. To the Court
he could present arguments learned, logical, and profound, or
exquisitely refined and subtle, as the occasion seemed to require.
But it was in trials before a jury that he was preeminent.
Nothing escaped his vigilance, and nothing was omitted that
could contribute to a verdict for his client. His skill in the
examination of witnesses was consummate. I have never seen
it equalled. The character of the jury, individually and col-
lectively, was not overlooked, and their opinions and prejudices
were not only respected, but soothed and conciliated with the
utmost tact and delicacy. His quickness of apprehension and
untiring application of all his energies to the cause in hand,
gave him complete mastery of his materials. His self-posses-
sion was perfect. However suddenly the aspect of his cause
might be clouded by unexpected developments, he was never
disconcerted. He had wonderful fertility of resources, which
were always at instant command, and seemed to multiply with
the difficulties which called them forth. Whatever the course
previously marked out, or however laboriously a position had
been fortified, they were without hesitation abandoned the
moment that a new exigency rendered it expedient to take
other grounds, and the transition was often effected with such
facility and adroitness that his opponent found himself assailed
from a new quarter before he had suspected a change of

" In his arguments, not only was each topic presented in all
its force, but they were all arranged with artistic skill, so
as mutually to sustain and strengthen each other, and present
a harmonious and imposing whole. He usually began his
address to the jury with a rapid and comprehensive view of
the whole trial, in which he grouped and made strikingly
prominent the circumstances which would make the strongest
impression of the fairness of his cHent and the justness of his
cause ; thus securing the sympathy and good wishes of the
jury, while he should take them with him through that fulness


of detail and that searching analysis which was sure to follow.
However protracted his arguments, they were listened to
throughout with eager attention. His matter, manner, and
diction, created such interest and pleasure in what was uttered,
and such expectation of new and striking thoughts and expres-
sions to come, that attention could not be withdrawn. With
a memory stored with the choicest literature of our own and
other languages, and a strong, vivid, and prolific imagination,
his argument was rarely decked with flowers. It presented
rather the grave and gorgeous foliage of our resplendent
autumn forest, infinite in richness and variety, but from which
we should hardly be willing to spare a leaf or a tint. Such
was his genius, his opulence of thought and intenseness of
expression, that we involuntarily speak of him in unmeasured
and unqualified terms.

" The characteristic which perhaps has been most dwelt upon
by those who have spoken of Mr. Choate, was his invincible
good temper. This especially endeared him, not only to his
brethren of the bar, but, also, to the bench. Anxious, earnest,
and even vehement, in his advocacy, and sometimes suffering
from disease, still no vicissitude or vexations of the cause, or
annoyance from opponents, could infuse into his address any
tinge of bitterness, or cause him for a moment to forget his
habitual courtesy and kindness. He never made assaults upon
opposing counsel, and if made on him, they were repelled with
mildness and forbearance. If, indeed, his opponent sometimes
felt the keen point of a pungent remark, it seemed rather to
have slipped from an overfull quiver than to have been inten-
tionally hurled. This abstinence was the more meritorious,
because the temptation of superabundant ability was not

" We can hardly measure his power for evil if he had stud-
ied the language of offence, and turned his eloquence into the
channels of vituperation. But against this perversion he was
secured by his kindly nature. I am sure that it would have
been to him a source of anguish to believe that he had inflicted
a wound which rankled in the breast of another.

" No man was more exempt from vanity. He seemed to
have no thought for himself, but only for his client and his
cause. The verdict was kept steadily in view. His most


brilliant efforts had no indication of self-exhibition or display.
Magnificent as they were, they seemed to be almost involun-
tary outpourings from a fulness of thought and language that
could not be repressed. From feehng, reflection, and habit,
he was a supporter of law, and of that order which is the
result of its regular administration. He was truly a friend of
the Court, and his manner to them was invariably respectful
and deferential. He took an enlightened view of their duties,
and appreciated their difficulties; and received their judg-
ments, even when adverse to his wishes, if not always with
entire acquiescence, at least with candor and graceful submis-
sion. We cannot but sympathize with the bar in a bereave-
ment which has taken from us such an associate and friend,
by whom the Court has been so often enlightened and aided
in their labors, and whose rare gifts contributed to make the
' light of jurisprudence gladsome.' "

On Friday, the 22d of July, a public meeting of the citizens
of Boston was held in Faneuil Hall. The darkened windows,
the burning gas-lights, the pillars and galleries covered with
mourning drapery, the heavy festoons stretching from the
centre of the ceiling to the capitals of the pillars, the quiet
crowd weighed down as by a general calamity, all spoke the
one language of bereavement and grief. Addresses were
made by many distinguished persons, and among others, by
Mr. Everett, who spoke as follows : —


"Mr. Mayor and Fellow-Citizens, — I obey the only call
which could with propriety have drawn me at this time from
my retirement, in accepting your invitation to unite with you
in the melancholy duties which we are assembled to perform.
While I speak. Sir, the lifeless remains of our dear departed
friend are expected ; it may be have already returned to his
bereaved home. We sent him forth, but a few days since, in
search of health ; the exquisite bodily organization over-tasked
and shattered, but the master intellect still shining in unclouded
strength. Anxious, but not desponding, we sent him forth, hop-
ing that the bracing air of the ocean, which he greatly loved,
the respite from labor, the change of scene, the cheerful inter-


course which he was so well calculated to enjoy with cong'enial
spirits abroad, would return him to us refreshed and renovated ;
but he has come back to us dust and ashes, a pilgrim already
on his way to

' The undiscovered country, from whose bourne
No traveller returns.'

" How could I refuse to bear my humble part in the tribute
of respect which you are assembled to pay to the memory of
such a man ! — a man not only honored by me, in common with
the whole country, but tenderly cherished as a faithful friend,
from the morning of his days, and almost from the morning
of mine, — one with whom through life I was delighted to take
sweet counsel, for whom I felt an affection never chilled for a mo-
ment, during forty years since it sprung up. I knew our dear
friend. Sir, from the time that he entered the Law School at
Cambridge. I was associated with him as one of the Massachu-
setts delegation in the House of Representatives of the United
States, between whom and myself there was an entire com-
munity of feeling and opinion on all questions of men and
measures ; and with whom, in these later years, as his near
neighbor, and especially when sickness confined him at home,
I have enjoyed opportunities of the most intimate social inter-

" Now that he is gone. Sir, I feel that one more is taken away
of those most trusted and loved, and with whom I had most
hoped to finish the journey ; nay, Sir, one whom, in the course

Online LibraryRufus ChoateThe works of Rufus Choate, with a memoir of his life → online text (page 29 of 57)