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Rufus Choate

(1799—1859)


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(born 1 October 1799 in Essex County, Massachusetts; died 13 July 1859 in Halifax, Nova Scotia), attorney. With his theatrical style, Rufus Choate was New England's premier trial lawyer and America's first celebrated defense attorney. Rufus was the fourth of Miriam Foster and David Choate’s six children. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1819 and attended Harvard Law School. His interest in law stemmed from an encounter with Daniel Webster, Dartmouth's attorney during the college's 1815 legal controversy with the state legislature of New Hampshire. Choate studied law under William Wirt, then attorney general of the United States, and returned to Massachusetts to prepare for the bar. In September 1823, Choate began a thirty-six-year career during which he accepted a staggering number of cases that covered nearly every aspect of law. Choate specialized in criminal cases, building a reputation as a master defense lawyer who could command a jury. Through a series of widely publicized cases, Choate perfected defense strategies that would later become commonplace. His most celebrated trial was his 1846 defense of Albert J. Tirrell, accused of murdering his mistress in a brothel. Taking advantage of the prosecution's circumstantial case, Choate presented the jury with alternative theories of the crime. In cross-examination he undermined the credibility of prosecution witnesses, an art he mastered over the course of his career. In two widely covered 1857 cases, Shaw v. Boston and Worcester Railroad and the Dalton divorce trial, he cultivated a theatrical oratorical style designed to influence the juries and used exaggerated rhetoric and humor to discredit opposing witnesses and his opponents’ claims. In every case, Choate marshaled as much evidence as possible on points of law. An active Whig who served briefly in the U.S. House of Representatives (1831–34) and the U.S. Senate (1841–45), Choate delivered a eulogy for Daniel Webster that contemporaries lauded as one of the era's great pieces of rhetoric. Webster and Choate were frequent opponents and partners; they teamed for the landmark legal case Norris v. Boston in 1842, part of the U.S. Supreme Court's Passenger Cases. Averaging seventy cases a year by the last decade of his practice, Choate packed courtrooms with observers and reporters while achieving a notoriety unusual for lawyers before the Civil War. His reputation and the proliferation of newspapers in antebellum America helped to create the American taste for courtroom drama. After Rufus Choate, infamous trials became an important part of the emerging mass media and culture of nineteenth-century America.

From The Oxford Companion to American Law in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Law.


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