Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Joseph H. Choate, Ambassador to England

"You may say what you will," said a young lawyer in a conversation wherein Joseph H. Choate and his ability were the topics of conversation; "a man cannot hope to distinguish himself without special opportunities."

"Not even in law?" questioned one.

"There least of all," was the answer.

"Well," said another, "the period in which Mr. Choate began his career in New York is commonly referred to as the golden age of the metropolitan bar. James T. Brady was a conspicuous figure in the popular eye. Charles O'Connor had already made a lasting impression. Mr. Evarts was in the front rank in politics as well as in law. Mr. Hoffman was equally prominent on the Democratic side, and Mr. Stanford's brillinacy in cross-examination had given him an enviable reputation. The legal heavens were studded with stars of such lustre as to make any newcomer feel doubtful about his ability to compete. But Choate displayed no anxiety. He hung out his shingle and began to look for clients, and they came."


"That was before the war," resumed the original speaker. "Do you imagine he could have attained his position as the foremost American lawyer under conditions as they exist today without special advantages?"

"Possibly," I said, and added that it was probable that Mr. Choate, if approached, would kindly throw light on the subject.

In pursuance of this idea, I called one evening at the residence of Mr. Choate. Previous inquiry at the law office of Evarts, Choate and Beaman, on Wall Street, elicited the information that Mr. Choate's days were filled to overflowing with legal affairs of great importance. Consequently it was surprising to find him so ready to see a stranger at his home.

It was into a long room on the ground floor that I was introduced, three of its walls lined with tall, dark walnut book-laden cases, lighted by a bright grate fire and by a student's lamp on the table by night, and by two heavily-shaded windows by day. As I entered, the great lawyer was busy prodding the fire, and voiced a resonant "good-evening" without turning. In a moment or two he had evoked a blaze, and assumed a standing attitude before the fire, his hands behind him.


"Well, sir," he began, "what do you wish?"

"A few minutes of your time," I answered.

"Why ?" he questioned succinctly.

"I wish to discover whether you beheve special advantages at the beginning of a youth's career are necessary to success?"

"Why my opinion?"

I was rather floored for an instant, but endeavored to make plain the natural interest of the public in the subject and his opinion, but he interrupted me with the query:

— "Why don't you ask a man who never had any advantages," at the same time fixing upon me one of his famous "what's in thy heart?" glances.

"Then you have had them ?" I said, grasping wildly at the straw that might keep the interviewer afloat.

"A few, not many," he replied.

"Are advantages necessary to success today ?"

"Define advantages and success," he said abruptly, evidently questioning whether it was worth while to talk. A distinguished looking figure he made, looking on, as I collected my defining ability. The room seemed full of his atmosphere. He is a tall man, oaken in strength, with broad, intelligent face, high forehead, alert, wide-set eyes, and firm, even lips expressive of great self-control. His fluency, his wit and humor, his sound knowledge, his strength and perfect self-possession, were all suggested by his face and expression, and by the firmness of his squarely set head and massive shoulders.

"Let us," I said, "say money, opportunity, friends, good advice, and personal popularity for early advantages.

"The first isn't necessary," said the jurist, leisurely adjusting his hands in his pockets. "Opportunity comes to everyone, but all have not a mind to see; friends you can do without for a time; good advice we take too late, and popularity usually comes too early or too tardy to be appreciated. Define success."


"I might mention fame, position, income, as examples of what the world deems success."

"Foolish world!" said Mr. Choate. "The most successful men sometimes have not one of all these. All I can say is that early advantages won't bring a man a knowledge of the law, nor enable him to convince a jury. What he needs is years of close application, the ability to stick until he has mastered the necessary knowledge."

"Where did you obtain your wide knowledge of the law?" I asked.

"Reading at home and fighting in the courts, —principally fighting in the courts."

"And was there any good luck about obtaining your first case? Was it secured by special effort?"


"None, unless it was the good luck of having a sign out, large enough for people to see. The rest of it was hard work, getting the evidence and the law fixed in my mind.

"You believe, of course," I ventured, "that advantageous opportunities do come to all ?"

"Yes," said he, drawing up a chair and resignedly seating himself. "I believe that opportunities come to all, —not the same opportunities, nor the same kind of opportunities, nor opportunities half so valuable in some cases as in others, but they do come, and if seen and grasped will work a vast improvement in the life and character of an individual. Every boy cannot be president, but my word for it, if he is industrious, he can improve his position in the world."


"It has been said, Mr. Choate," I went on, "that you often ascribe both your success in particular cases, and your general success at the bar, to good luck and happy accidents."

"Just so, just so," he answered, smiling in a manner that is at once a question and a mark of approbation. "I hope I have always made the most of good luck and happy accidents. We all should. My friend, John E. Parsons, once denounced a defendant insurance company as a 'vampire, —one of those bloodless creatures that feed on the blood of the people.' It was a savage address of the old-fashioned style, and convincing, until I asked the judge and jury if they knew what a vampire really is. 'Look at the Quaker gentleman who is president of this company,' I said, pointing him out. 'Also look at that innocent young man, his attorney, who sits next to him with a smile on his face. You thought vampires were something out of the way when Brother Parsons described them, but these are regular, genuine vampires.' That brought a laugh and good feeling, and I suppose you might call the whole thing an opportunity to turn a bad assault into a helpful incident."

The great lawyer was a study as he spoke, his easy, unaffected attitude and bearing itself carrying weight. His manner of accepting the intrusion with mild acquiescence and attention, but with no intention of allowing himself to be bored, was interesting. It has become customary to say that he is a poor politician, and as the term is ordinarily employed and understood, he is, because he is ever ready to say what he really thinks. It is precisely this quality, this freedom from cowardice, this detestation of truckling to ignorance and brutality, this independence, that cause him to stand out so boldly in the legal profession.


"If equally valuable opportunities do not come to all," I went on, "hasn't an individual a right to complain and justify his failure?"

"We have passed the period when we believe that all men are equal," said Mr. Choate. "We know they're free, but some men are born less powerful than others. But if an individual does not admit to himself that he is deficient in strength or reasoning powers, if he claims all the rights and privileges given others because he is 'as good as they ' then his success or failure is upon his own head. He should prove that he is what he thinks he is, and be what he aspires to be."

"You believe, of course, that an individual may overestimate his abilities."

"Believe it," he answered, with a deprecatory wave of the hand, "trust the law to teach that. But if a man does overestimate himself, he still owes it to himself to endeavor to prove that his estimate of himself is correct. We all need to. If he fails, he will be learning his limitations, which is better than never finding them out. No man can justify inaction."

"What do you consider to be the genuine battle of a youth today? —the struggle to bear poverty while working to conquer?"

"Not at all," came the quick answer, "Poor clothes and poor food and a poor place to dwell in are disagreeable things and must be made to give place to better, of course, but one can be partially indifferent to them. The real struggle is to hang on to every advantage, and strengthen the mind at every step. There are persons who have learned to endure poverty so well that they don't mind it any longer. The struggle comes in maintaining a purpose through poverty to the end. It is just as difficult to maintain a purpose through riches."

"Money is not an end, then, in your estimation."

"Never, and need is only an incentive. Erskine made his greatest speech with his hungry children tugging at his coat-tail. That intense feeling that something has got to be done is the thing that works the doing. I never met a great man who was born rich."


This remark seemed rather striking in a way, because of the fact that Mr. Choate's parents were not poor in the accepted sense. The family is rather distinguished in New England annals. His father was a cousin of the famous Rufus Choate, and the latter, at the date of Joseph's birth, January 24, 1832, was just entering his second term in congress to distinguish himself by a great speech on the tariff. Mr. Choate was the youngest of four brothers, and, after receiving a fair school education in Salem, was sent to Harvard, where he was graduated in 1852, and later from its law school in 1854. Influence procured him a position in a Boston law office. After a year of practical study, he was admitted to the bar of Massachusetts. In October of that year he made a tour of observation in the western states, in company with his brother William, and on his return determined to settle in New York.

"Isn't it possible, Mr. Choate," I ventured, "that your having had little or no worry over poverty in your youth might cause you to underestimate the effect of it on another, and overestimate the importance of sticking with determination to an idea through wealth or deprivation ?"

"No," he replied, after a few moments' delay, in which he picked up one of the vohimes near by as if to consult it; "no, the end to be attained makes important the need of hanging on. I am sure it is quite often more difficult to rise with money than without."


"You have had long years of distinction and comfort; do you find that success brings content and happiness ?"

"Well," he answered, contracting his brows with legal severity, "constant labor is happiness, and success simply means ability to do more labor, —more deeds far-reaching in their power and effect. Such success brings about as much happiness as the world provides."

"I mean," I explained, "the fruits of that which is conventionally accepted as success; few hours of toil, a luxuriously furnished home, hosts of friends, the applause of the people, sumptuous repasts, and content in idleness, knowing that enough has been done."

"We never know that enough has been done," said the lawyer. "All this sounds pleasant, but the truth is that the men whose great efforts have made such things possible for themselves are the very last to desire them. You have described what appeals to the idler, the energyless dreamer, the fashionable dawdler, and the listless voluptuary. Enjoyment of such things would sap the strength and deaden the ambition of a Lincoln. The man who has attained to the position where these things are possible is the one whose life has been a constant refutation of the need of these things. He is the one who has abstained, who has conserved his mental and physical strength by living a simple and frugal life. He has not taken more than he needed, and never, if possible, less. His enjoyment has been in working, and I guarantee that you will find successful men ever to be plain-mannered persons of simple tastes, to whom sumptuous repasts are a bore, and luxury a thing apart. They may live surrounded by these things, but personally take little interest in them, knowing them to be mere trappings, which neither add to nor detract from character."


"Is there no pleasure then in luxury and ease without toil ?" I questioned.

"None," said the speaker emphatically. "There is pleasure in rest after labor. It is gratifying to relax when you really need relaxation, to be weary and be able to rest. But to enjoy anything you must first feel the need of it. But no more," he said, putting up his hand conclusively. "Surely you have enough to make clear what you wish to know."

Mr. Choate had talked for ten minutes. His ease of manner, quickness of reply, smoothness of expression, and incisive diction, were fascinating beyond description. As I was about to leave, I inquired if he would object to my making our conversation the subject of an article, to which he smiled his willingness, waiving objection with a slight movement of the hand.


In court circles it is common report that Mr. Choate's contemporaries divide half of the business among them, and Mr. Choate has the other half to himself.

This is due to his wonderful simplicity and directness, which never falters for a moment for thought or word. He drives straight for the heart and head of client or officer, witness or counsel, judge or juryman, A distinguished barrister has said of him:

"Where other lawyers are solemn and portentious, or wild or unpleasant, he is humorous and human. He assumes no superior air; often he speaks with his hands in his pockets. He strives to stir up no dark passions. While he is always a little bit keener, a little finer and more witty than the man in the box or on the bench, yet he is always a brother man to him."

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