The Works of Rufus Choate, With a Memoir of His Life

By SAMUEL GILMAN BROWN, Professor in Dartmouth College. In Two Volumes. Boston : Little, Brown, & Co.
IN estimating the claims of any biographical work we must bear in mind the difficulties of the subject, the advantages which the writer enjoys, and the disadvantages under which he labors. The life, genius, and character of Mr. Choate present a stimulating, but not an easy task to him who essays to delineate them. We have read of a man who had taught his dog to bite out of a piece of bread a profile likeness of Voltaire ; it was not more difficult to draw a caricature of Mr. Choate, but to paint him as he was requires a nice pencil and a discriminating touch. The salient traits were easily recognized by all. The general public saw in him a man who flung himself into his eases with the fervor and passion of a mountain-torrent, whose eloquence was exuberant and sometimes extravagant, who said quaint and brilliant things with a very grave countenance, and whose handwriting was picturesquely illegible. We verily believe that Mr. Choate’s peculiar handwriting was as well known to his townsmen and neighbors, was as frequent a topic of observation and comment, as any of the traits of his mind and character. We need hardly add that this popular image which was called Mr. Choate resembled the real man about as much as a sign-post daub of General Washington resembles the head by Stuart. The skill of the true artist is shown in catching and transferring to the canvas the delicate distinctions which make a difference between faces which have a general similarity. No man had more need of this fine discrimination in order to have justice done him than Mr. Choate for there was no man who would have been more imperfectly known, had he been known only by those prominent and obvious characteristics which all the world could see. He was a great and successful lawyer, but his original taste was for literature rather than law. Few men were more before the public than he, and yet he loved privacy more than publicity. He had acquaintances numberless, and facile and gracious manners, but his heart was open to very few. His eloquence was luxuriant and efflorescent, but he was also a close and compact reasoner. He had a vein of playful exaggeration in his common speech, but his temperament was earnest, impassioned, almost melancholy. The more nearly one knew Mr. Choate, the more cause had he to correct superficial impressions.
Professor Brown has many qualifications for the task which was devolved upon him. He knew, loved, and admired Mr. Choate. A graduate and professor of Dartmouth College, the son of a former president, he caught a larger portion of the light thrown back upon the college by the genius and fame of her brilliant son. A good scholar himself, he is competent to appreciate the ripe scholarship of Mr. Choate, and his love of letters. His style is clear, simple, and manly. He has, too, the moral qualities needed in a man who undertakes to write the biography of an eminent man recently deceased, who has left children, relatives, friends, acquaintances, and rivals, — the tact, the instinct, the judgment which teaches what to say and what to leave unsaid, and refuses to admit the public into those inner chambers of the mind and heart where the public has no right to go. But he has one disqualification : he is not a lawyer, and no one but a lawyer can take the full gauge and dimensions of what Mr. Choate was and did. For Mr. Choate, various as were his intellectual tastes, wide as was the range of his intellectual curiosity, made all things else secondary and subservient to legal studies and professional aspirations. To the law he gave his mind and life, and all that he did outside of the law was done in those breathing-spaces and intermissions of professional labor in which most lawyers in large practice are content to do nothing.
But Professor Brown’s biography is satisfactory in all respects, even in the delineations of the professional character of Mr. Choate, where, if anywhere, we should have looked for imperfect comprehension. The members of the bar may rest assured that justice has been done to the legal claims and merits of one of whom they were so justly proud; and the public may be assured that the traits of Mr. Choate’s character, the qualities of his mind, — his great and conspicuous powers, as well as his lighter graces and finer gifts, — have been set down with taste, feeling, judgment, and discrimination. This seems but measured language, and yet we mean it for generous praise; bearing always in mind the difficulties of the subject, and, as Professor Brown has happily said in his preface, that “ the traits of Mr. Choate’s character were so peculiar, its lights and shades so delicate, various, and evanescent,” We confess that we sat down to read the biography not without a little uneasiness, not without a flutter of apprehension. But all feeling of this kind was soon dissipated as we went on, and there came in its place a grateful sense of the grace, skill, and taste which Professor Brown had shown in his delineation, and the faithful portrait he had produced. And one secret of this success is to be found in the fact that he had no other object or purpose than to do justice to his subject. He is entirely free from selfreference. There is not in the remotest corner of his mind a wish to magnify his office and draw attention from the theme of the biography to the biographer himself. He permits himself no digressions, he obtrudes no needless reflections, enters into no profitless discussions : he is content to unfold the panorama of Mr. Choate’s life, and do little more than point out the scenes and passages as they pass before the spectator’s eye.
It was not an eventful life; it was, indeed, the reverse. It was a life passed in the constant and assiduous practice of the law. We do not forget his brief term of service in the House of Representatives, and his longer period in the Senate; but these were but episodes. They were trusts reluctantly assumed and gladly laid aside ; for he was one of those exceptional Americans who have no love of political distinction or public office. A lawyer’s life leaves little to be recorded ; the triumphs of the bar are proverbially ephemeral, and lawyers themselves are willing to forget the cases they have tried and the verdicts they have won. Had Mr. Choate been merely and exclusively a lawyer, the story of his life could have been told in half a dozen pages; but though he was a great lawyer and advocate, he was something more: he was an orator, a scholar, and a patriot. He had no taste for public life, as we have just said ; but he had the deepest interest in public subjects, loved his country with a fervid love, had read much and thought much upon questions of politics and government. Busy as he always was in his profession, his mind, discursive, sleepless, always thirsting for knowledge, was never content to walk along the beaten highway of the law, but was ever wandering into the flowery fields of poetry and philosophy on the right hand and the left. These volumes show how untiring was his industry, how various were his attainments, how accurate was his knowledge, how healthy and catholic were his intellectual tastes. The only thing for which he had no taste was repose; the only thing which he could not do was to rest. When we see what his manner of life was, how for so many years the nightly vigil succeeded the daily toil, how the bow was always strung, how much he studied and wrote outside of his profession, even while bearing the burden and anxiety of an immense practice, we can only wonder that he lived so long.
The whole of the second volume and a full half of the first are occupied with Mr. Choate’s own productions, mainly speeches and lectures. Many of these have been published before, but some of them appear in print for the first time. Mr. Choate’s peculiar characteristics of style and manner — his exuberance of language, his full flow of thought, his redundancy of epithet, his long-drawn sentences, stretching on through clause after clause before the orbit of his thought had begun to turn and enter upon itself— are well known. We cannot say that the contents of these volumes will add to the high reputation which Mr. Choate already enjoys as a brilliant writer, an eloquent speaker, a patriotic statesman; but we can and do say that the glimpses we herein get of his purely human qualities — of that inner life which belongs to every man simply as man—all add to the interest which already clings to his name, by showing him in a light and in relations of which the public who hung with delight upon his lips knew little or nothing. He had long been one of the celebrities of the city; his face and form were familiar to his towns-people, and all strangers were anxious to see and hear him; but, though he moved and acted in public, he dwelt apart. His orbit embraced the three points of the court-room, his office, and his home, — and no more. He had no need of society, of amusement, of sympathy, of companionship. We are free to say that we think it was a defect in his nature, at least a mistake in his life, that he did not cultivate his friendships more. Few men of his eminence have ever lived so long and written so few letters. But his diaries and journals, now for the first time given to the light, show us the inner man and the inner life. Here he communed with himself. Here he intrusted his thoughts, his hopes, his dreams, his aspirations to the safe confidence of his note-book. No portions of the two volumes are to us of more interest than these diaries and journals. They bear the stamp of perfect sincerity. They show us how high his standard was, how little he was satisfied with anything he had done, how deep and strong were his love of knowledge and his love of beauty, how everystep of progress was made a starting-point for a new advance. And from these, and other indications which these volumes contain, we can learn how modest he was, how gentle and courteous, how full of playfulness and graceful wit, how unprejudiced, how imbued with reverence for things high and sacred, how penetrated with delicate tact and sensitive propriety. He nursed no displeasures; he cultivated no antipathies; he was free from dark suspicions, sullen resentments, and smouldering hates; he put no venom upon his blade.
The life and labors of a man like Mr. Choate present many points on which it would be easy to dwell with more or less of fulness, but we can only touch upon one or two. We have always thought him especially remarkable for the felicity with which the elements in him were so mingled that the bright gift was not accompanied by the usually attendant shadow. All would admit, for instance, that his temperament was the temperament of genius. The strings of an Æolian harp are not more responsive to the caressing wind than were the fibres of his frame sen sitive to the influence of beauty. His organization was delicate, nervous, and impassioned. The grandeur and loveliness of Nature, fine poetry, stirring eloquence, music under certain forms and conditions, affected him to an extent to which men are rarely susceptible. And yet with all these “robes and singing garlands” of genius about him, he was entirely free from the irritability which usually accompanies genius. His temper was as sweet as his organization was sensitive. The life of a lawyer in great practice is very trying to the spirit, but no one ever saw Mr. Choate discomposed or ruffled, and the sharp contentions of the most protracted and hotly contested trial never extorted front him a testy remark, a peevish exclamation, a wounding reflection. He never wasted any of his nervous energy in scolding, fretting, or worrying. Such invincible and inevitable sweetness of temper would have made the most commonplace man attractive : we need not say what a charm it gave to such powers and accomplishments as those of Mr. Choate.
So, too, there is the old, traditionary commonplace about genius being one thing and application another, and their being in necessary antagonism to each other. But Mr. Choate was a man of genius, at least in its popular and generally received sense. The glance of his mind was as rapid as the lightning ; he learned almost by intuition; his fancy was brilliant, discursive, and untiring; his perceptions were both quick and correct: if there ever were a man who could have dispensed with the painful acquisitions of labor, and been content with the spontaneous growth of an uncultivated soil, that man was Mr. Choate. And yet who ever worked harder than he ? what plodding chronicler, what prosaic Dryasdust ever went through a greater amount of drudgery than he ? His very industry had the intense and impassioned character which belonged to his whole temperament and organization. He toiled with a fiery earnestness and a concentration of purpose which burned into the very heart of the subject he was investigating. The audience that hung with delight upon one of his addresses to the jury, at the close of a long and exciting trial, in which the wit and eloquence and poetry seemed to be the inspiration of the moment,— electric sparks which the minds own rapid motion generated, — thought as little of the patient industry with which all had been elaborated as they who admire an exquisite ball-dress, that seems a part of the lovely form which it adorns, think of the pale weaver’s loom and the poor seamstress’s needle. We have known brilliant men ; we have known laborious men ; but we have never known any man in whom the two elements were met in such combination as Mr. Choate.
But we must pause. We are insensibly going beyond our limits. We are forgetting the biography and recalling Mr. Choate himself, a theme too fruitful for a literary notice. We conclude, then, with an expression of thanks to Professor Brown for the entirely satisfactory manner in which he has performed a task of no common difficulty. The friends of Mr. Choate will find in these volumes not only ample, but new matter, to justify the admiration which he awakened; and to those who did not know him they will show how just was his title to their admiration.