Rufus Choate
RufusChoate Southworth Hawes-crop.png
United States Senator
from Massachusetts
In office
February 23, 1841 – March 3, 1845
Preceded byDaniel Webster
Succeeded byDaniel Webster
Member of the
U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 2nd district
In office
March 4, 1831 – June 30, 1834
Preceded byBenjamin W. Crowninshield
Succeeded byStephen C. Phillips
10th Massachusetts Attorney General
In office
GovernorJohn H. Clifford
Preceded byJohn H. Clifford
Succeeded byJohn H. Clifford
Member of the Massachusetts Senate
In office
Member of the
Massachusetts House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born(1799-10-01)October 1, 1799
Ipswich, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedJuly 13, 1859(1859-07-13) (aged 59)
Halifax, British Canada
Resting placeMount Auburn Cemetery
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Political partyWhig
Alma materDartmouth College
Harvard University

Rufus Choate[pronunciation?] (October 1, 1799 – July 13, 1859) was an American lawyer, orator, and Senator who represented Massachusetts as a member of the Whig Party. He is regarded as one of the greatest American lawyers of the 19th century, arguing over a thousand cases in a lifetime practice extending to virtually every branch of the law then recognized. Notably, he was one of the pioneers of the legal technique of arousing jury sympathy in tort cases. In one instance, he successfully won a record judgement of $22,500 for a badly injured widow, the most ever awarded to a plaintiff at the time.[1] Along with his colleague and close associate Daniel Webster, he is also regarded as one of the greatest orators of his age. Among his most famous orations are his Address on The Colonial Age of New England delivered at the centennial celebration of the settlement of Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1831 and his Address on The Age of the Pilgrims as the Heroic Period of Our History before the New England Society of New York in 1843. Through these addresses, Choate became one of the most prominent advocates of promoting the Puritan settlers as the first founders of the American republic. A staunch nationalist and unionist, Choate was among several former Whigs to oppose the Republican Party over concerns that it was a "sectional party" whose platform threatened to separate the Union. In turn, he publicly voiced his support for Democratic candidate James Buchannan over Republican John C. Fremont in the 1856 Presidential election.

Early life

Rufus Choate was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, the son of Miriam (Foster) and David Choate, a teacher and Revolutionary War veteran.[2] He was a descendant of an English family which settled in Massachusetts in 1643.[3] His first cousin, physician George Choate, was the father of George C. S. Choate and Joseph Hodges Choate. Rufus Choate's birthplace, Choate House, remains virtually unchanged to this day.

A precocious child, at six he is said to have been able to repeat large parts of the Bible and of Pilgrim's Progress from memory. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa[4] and graduated as valedictorian of his class at Dartmouth College in 1819, was a tutor there in 1819–1820.

In the fall of 1820 he was entered at the Dane Law School in Cambridge, under the instruction of Chief Justice Parker and Professor Asahel Stearns. In the following year Choate studied in Washington, D.C. in the office of William Wirt, then Attorney General of the United States.[5]


Statue of Rufus Choate by noted American sculptor Daniel Chester French, John Adams Courthouse, Boston, Massachusetts

He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1823 and practiced at what was later South Danvers (now Peabody) for five years, during which time he served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1825–1826) and in the Massachusetts Senate (1827).

In 1828, he moved to Salem, where his successful conduct of several important lawsuits brought him prominently into public notice. In 1830 he was elected to Congress as a Whig from Salem, defeating the Jacksonian candidate for re-election, Benjamin Crowninshield, a former United States Secretary of the Navy, and in 1832 he was re-elected. His career in Congress was marked by a speech in defence of a protective tariff.

Choate lived on Winthrop Place, Boston, 1851-1859[6]
Choate lived on Winthrop Place, Boston, 1851-1859[6]

In 1834, before the completion of his second term, he resigned and established himself in the practice of law in Boston. Already his reputation as a speaker had spread beyond New England, and he was much sought after as an orator for public occasions. His skill was so great that when he argued cases at the Norfolk County Courthouse, students from the nearby Dedham High School would be dismissed to listen to his orations.[7] For several years, he devoted himself unremittingly to his profession but, in 1841, succeeded fellow Dartmouth graduate Daniel Webster in the United States Senate. Shortly afterwards he delivered an address at the memorial services for President William Henry Harrison at Faneuil Hall.

In the Senate, he spoke on the tariff, the Oregon boundary, in favor of the Fiscal Bank Act, and in opposition to the annexation of Texas. On Webster's re-election to the Senate in 1845, Choate resumed his law practice. He later served a short term as attorney-general of Massachusetts in 1853–1854. In 1846, Choate convinced a jury that the accused, Albert Tirrell, did not cut the throat of his lover, or, if he did so, he did it while sleepwalking, under the 'insanity of sleep'.[8] His successful use of sleepwalking as a defense against murder charges was the first time in American legal history this defense was successful in a murder prosecution.[9] He was a faithful supporter of Webster's policy as declared in the latter's Seventh of March Speech of 1850 and labored to secure for him the presidential nomination at the Whig National Convention in 1852. In 1853, he was a member of the state constitutional convention.

In 1856, he refused to follow most of his former Whig associates into the Republican Party and gave his support to Democrat James Buchanan, whom he considered the representative of a national instead of a sectional party.


The Colonial Age of New England, 1831.

The Importance of Illustrating New-England History by a Series of Romances like the Waverly Novels, 1833.

The Age of the Pilgrims as the Heroic Period of Our History, 1843.

The Positions and Functions of the American Bar, as an Element of Conservatism in the State, 1845.

American Nationality, 1856,

The Eloquence of Revolutionary Periods, 1857.


In 1850 Choate traveled Europe for three months to improve his health. He was accompanied by his old friend and well-known lawyer, the Hon. Joseph M. Bell, who married Choate's sister, and later his daughter Helen.[5]: 427, 429, 434 

In 1859, failing health led him to seek rest yet again in Europe. In June 1859, he sailed from Boston to England, became worse and left the ship at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he died on July 13.[5] He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston.[10]


With his wife Helen Olcott, whom he married on March 29, 1825, Choate had seven children: Catherine Bell (1826-1830), an infant child (1828-1828), Helen Olcott (1830-1918), Sarah (1831-1875), Rufus (1834-1866), Miriam Foster (1835-??), and Caroline (1837-1840).[5]


Choate's private library contained seven thousand books with three thousand volumes in his law library.[5] His childhood home is preserved by the Trustees of Reservations on the Crane Wildlife Refuge.[11] A statue of him stands in the Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston.


Further reading



  1. ^ Howe, Daniel Walker (1979). The Political Culture of the American Whigs. The University of Chicago Press. p. 225.
  2. ^ "Rufus Choate |".
  3. ^ Jameson, Ephraim Orcutt. The Choates in America. 1643–1896. John Choate and His Descendants. Chebacco, Ipswich, Mass. Boston: A. Mudge & Son, printers, 1896.
  4. ^ Dartmouth to honor two valedictorians, Dartmouth Press Release, June 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  5. ^ a b c d e Cogswell, J. B. D. (John Bear Doane), 1829-1889 (1884). Memoir of Rufus Choate. The Library of Congress: Cambridge : J. Wilson.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ State Street Trust Company. Forty of Boston's historic houses. 1912.
  7. ^ Clarke, Wm. Horatio (1903). Mid-Century Memories of Dedham. Dedham Historical Society. p. 14.
  8. ^ "Maria Bickford". Brown University Law Library. Archived from the original on November 21, 2007. Retrieved November 22, 2007.
  9. ^ Kappman, Edward W., ed. (1994). Great American Trials. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press. pp. 101–104. ISBN 0-8103-9134-1.
  10. ^ "The News". New York Herald. July 24, 1859. p. 4. Retrieved September 21, 2022 – via access
  11. ^ Historic Ipswich (February 18, 2019). "Choate Island and Rufus Choate". Historic Ipswich. Historic Ipswich. Archived from the original on December 6, 2020. Retrieved December 6, 2020.