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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 362

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This is the grave of Joseph Choate.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1832 to a well-off and well-connected family, Choate went to Harvard, graduating in 1852 and then from Harvard Law in 1854. He was immediately a very successful lawyer and was made partner in one of New York’s top firms in 1860. Choate is one of the few Americans really famous for being a lawyer, as opposed to a judge. He was involved in many of the most important legal cases of the day, including settling the disputed election of 1876 that gave the presidency to Rutherford Hayes in exchange for ending Reconstruction. Representing rich Republicans, by and large, he argued before the Supreme Court to overturn a federal income tax law in 1895 by arguing it was an unconstitutional taking of private property and an attack on the Northeast, where most of the nation’s rich people lived. He was supposedly paid $250,000 after winning this case. It took a constitutional amendment to finally force this issue. He did a lot of pricey estate work as well, including the disputed wills of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Samuel Tilden. He argued against the constitutionality of the Chinese Exclusion Act, worked on patents for big-time companies, endowments for Stanford University, railroad disputes, and all the other ways that a rich lawyer could make a ton of money in the highly litigious and morally dubious Gilded Age.

Choate also was a big player in breaking up Boss Tweed’s dominance over New York, as a member of the Committee of Seventy, under Samuel Tilden’s lead. For all of this, he was elected president of the American Bar Association in 1898-99. He was a major player in the running of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History until his death. Notoriously anti-Irish, he publicly urged successful Irish-Americans to leave the United States and return to their home nation where they could run it better than it was being run then, while leaving the United States to the English descendants who deserved it. Nice guy.

Later in life, Choate reaped the rewards of being a powerful, well-connected Republican. William McKinley named him ambassador to Great Britain in 1899 and he remained in London until 1905. He was one of the U.S. representatives at the second Peace Congress at the Hague in 1907. Active until the very end, he was a huge proponent of American involvement in World War I, critical of Wilson’s reluctance to enter the war, and promoting the English and French cause in the U.S. Perhaps this hard work helped hasten his death in 1917, although he was 85 years old, so it may not have mattered much.

Joseph Choate is buried in Stockbridge Cemetery, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He was initially interned in his family plot in The Bronx, but was later moved for reasons that are unclear to me.

If you would like this series to visit more famous lawyers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Johnnie Cochran is buried in Inglewood, California, as an example. We all know how much lawyers like to talk about themselves (is this even true? Who knows, but it sounds good), so let’s make it happen. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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