Words That Men Live By
Joseph Hodges Choate (1880)
NEW YORK, N.Y., Dec. 22, 1880 - If Joseph Hodges Choate had been born without background and had grown to manhood without education or social advantages, he probably would have been a noted wit or actor.
His background having been one of privilege, he chose the law as a profession, and today ranks, either by the test of clients or of fees, as one of the bar's leading figures. Hence his wit takes the turn of pointing up the humorous twists about which people like to laugh in his own profession.
Mr. Choate's speeches about the law and lawyers are myriad. Tonight he tackled his favorite subject as guest at a dinner given by the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, in response to the toast: "The Bench and the Bar-Blessed are the peacemakers."
Mr. President: I rise with unprecedented embarrassment in this presence and at this hour to respond to this sentiment, so flattering to the feelings of all the members of the Bench and Bar, to say nothing of that shrinking modesty inherent in the breast of every lawyer and which the longer he practices seems to grow stronger and stronger. I have a specific trouble which overwhelms me at this moment, and that is that all the preparation I had made for this occasion is a complete miscarriage.Printable version
I received this sentiment yesterday with an intimation that I was expected to respond to it. I had prepared a serious and sober essay on the relations of commerce to the law - the one great relation of client and counsel, but I have laid all that aside; I do not intend to have a single sober word tonight. There is a reason, however, why nothing more of a sober sort should be uttered at this table; there is a danger that it would increase by however small a measure, the specific gravity of the Chamber of commerce of New York. Certainly nothing could be a greater calamity than that.
At an hour like this, sir, merchants like witnesses are to weighed as well as counted. And when I compare your appearance at this moment. with what it was when you entered this room, when I look around upon these swollen girths and these expanded countenances, when I see that each individual member of the Chamber has increased his avoirdupois by at least ten pounds since he took his seat at the table, why, the total weight of the aggregate body must be startling, indeed, and as I suppose you believe in the resurrection from this long session, as you undoubtedly hope to rise again from these chairs, to which you have been glued so long, I should be the last person to add a feather's weight to what has been so heavily heaped upon you.
Mr. Blaine, freighted with wisdom from the floor of the State house and from long study of American institutions, has deplored the low condition of the carrying trade. Now, for our part, as representing one of the institutions which does its full share of the carrying trade, I repudiate the idea. We undoubtedly are still prepared to carry all that can be heaped upon us.
Lord Bacon, who was thought the greatest lawyer of his age, has said that every man owes a duty to his profession; but I think that can be amended by saying, in reference to the law, that every man in the community owes a duty. to our profession; and somewhere, at some time, somewhere between the cradle and the grave, he must acknowledge the liability and pay the debt. Why, gentlemen, you cannot live without the lawyers, and certainly you cannot die without them.
It was one of the brightest members of the profession, you remember, who had taken his passage for Europe to spend his summer vacation on the other side, and failed to go; and when called upon for an explanation, he said-why, yes; he had taken his passage, and had intended to go, but one of his rich clients died, and he was afraid if he had gone across the Atlantic, the heirs would have got all of the property.
When I look around me in this solid body of merchants, all this heaped-up and idle capital, all these great representatives of immense railroad, steam- ship and other interests under the face of the sun, I believe that the fortunes of the Bar are yet at their very beginning. Gentlemen, the future is all before us. We have no sympathy with communism, but like Communists we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.