Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

and no for someone quite uniue: Benjamin Prat

Expand Messages
  • Richard Jensen
    American National Biography Online Prat, Benjamin (13 Mar. 1711-6 Jan. 1763), lawyer and political figure, was born in Cohasset, Massachusetts, the son of
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 9, 2004
      American National Biography Online

      Prat, Benjamin (13 Mar. 1711-6 Jan. 1763), lawyer and political
      figure, was born in Cohasset, Massachusetts, the son of Aaron
      Prat, an ironworker, and Sarah (maiden name unknown). At the
      age of eighteen Prat fell from an apple tree; the accident necessitated
      the amputation of one leg at the hip. For the rest of his life
      he suffered great pain and walked only with the aid of crutches.
      "Without resources, without friends, and somewhat advanced in
      years," Prat nevertheless determined to attend Harvard College.
      "He believed he should not only gain a substance by his learning,
      but make a shining figure among his contemporaries" (Eliot, p.
      388). His brother-in-law Nehemiah Hobart prepared him for college,
      and Prat sold off a small piece of land (his only inheritance
      from his father) to pay his tuition. His infirmity prevented
      him from participating in Harvard's commencement exercises and
      thus delayed his degree several years despite superior academic
      achievement that won him the Hollis and Brown fellowships. In
      1737, at the advanced age of twenty-six, he was awarded his degree
      after a moving plea: "My deficiencies are not my fault, but the
      effects of a ruinous constitution and want of advantage. . .
      . For I presume there's no man that loves learning better or
      that more fully could spend his life in pursuit of it than I."

      After graduating, Prat received Harvard's Hopkins Fellowship
      to prepare for the ministry. According to family tradition, he
      was discouraged from this calling by his lack of success in attempts
      to inspire the Indians who lived on the islands in Boston harbor
      and the soldiers at Castle William. He then served briefly as
      the college librarian before studying law with Jeremiah Gridley
      and Robert Auchmuty, Boston's judge of vice admiralty. In 1749
      he married Auchmuty's daughter Isabella. They had four children,
      two of whom lived to maturity.

      Prat soon rose to be perhaps the most successful attorney in
      Massachusetts. John Adams, whom Prat swore into the bar, "looked
      with wonder to see such a little body, hung upon two sticks,
      send forth such eloquence and displays of mind." At the outset
      of the famous Writs of Assistance case in 1761, both the Boston
      merchants and the customs commissioners who had seized their
      goods unsuccessfully sought to retain Prat. Adams observed Prat
      as a spectator: "Wit, sense, imagination, genius, pathos, reason,
      prudence, eloquence, learning, and immense reading, hanging by
      the shoulders of two crutches covered with a great cloth coat."
      Prat's income of 750 per year in the 1750s enabled him to build
      a country house in suburban Milton.

      Prat achieved his success despite what Adams termed his "ill
      nature." His contributions to literary magazines reflected a
      misanthropy deriving from his disability: "'Twas adverse fortune
      . . . that doomed me being, and frowning bid me live." He defined
      humanity as being of "the ape kind" that "eats and drinks, and
      propagates and dies," its main purpose being to provide "food
      and comfort for other animals." An Anglican who owned a pew in
      King's Chapel, Prat nevertheless espoused religious toleration,
      writing that "a variety of religions has the same beauty in the
      natural world, that a variety of flowers has in a garden." Politically,
      Prat expressed contempt for the town meeting style of participatory
      government much beloved by his fellow New Englanders. Adams noted
      that Prat considered free schools "the very bane of society:
      they make the lowest of the people infinitely conceited."

      Despite such views, Prat was elected to the Massachusetts House
      of Representatives by the Boston Town Meeting from 1757 to 1759
      by large majorities. He allied with Governor Thomas Pownall,
      who favored the opponents of former governor William Shirley,
      thereby setting himself up as a "popular" or "country" politician
      in opposition to Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver. When Pownall
      left Massachusetts in 1760, Prat lost his support among Boston's
      voters, but the former governor used his influence in Britain
      to obtain for Prat an appointment as chief justice of New York.

      Prat arrived in New York in November 1761 and found himself
      caught in the middle of a dispute between the governor and legislature
      over whether judges were to serve during good behavior (only
      being subject to removal for judicial misconduct) or at the governor's
      (in constitutional terms, the king's) pleasure. Although Prat
      won immediate respect for his independence and legal ability,
      the constitutional squabbling and what he considered the ill
      behavior of New York lawyers made him long to return to Massachusetts.
      Besides the high fees they charged, Prat complained they played
      to the "mob" with "licentious harangues" insisting "that all
      authority is derived from the people."

      Unlike the other New York Superior Court justices, Prat was
      willing to serve at the king's pleasure even though the assembly
      offered him money to decline. However, the point was moot since
      Prat returned to his home in Milton, Massachusetts, in April
      1762 and found excuses to remain there until he died early the
      next year following an emergency amputation of his remaining
      leg. One might speculate whether Prat would have followed his
      old political allies of Pownall's faction, James Otis, Sr., and
      James Otis, Jr., in supporting the patriot cause in Massachusetts,
      or whether his oft-expressed dislike of popular politics and
      reverence for the law would have led him to join his surviving
      son in exile.


      For Prat's writings, posthumously published, see Massachusetts
      Magazine 5 (1793): 327, and Royal American Magazine 1 (1774):
      106. The only modern sketch of Prat is in Clifford K. Shipton,
      Sibley's Harvard Graduates, vol. 10 (1958), pp. 226-39. See also
      John M. Murrin, "The Legal Transformation: The Bench and Bar
      of Eighteenth Century Massachusetts," in Colonial America: Essays
      in Political and Social Development, ed. Stanley Katz et al.
      (1971), pp. 417-49. John Adams refers to Prat frequently in his
      Diary and Autobiography, ed. L. H. Butterfield (4 vols., 1961);
      see also Adams's Works (10 vols., 1850-1856), especially vol.
      10. John Eliot, Biographical Dictionary (1809), p. 388, is also useful.

      William Pencak

      Back to the top

      William Pencak. "Prat, Benjamin";
      American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
      Access Date:
      Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published
      by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

      Note: This email has been sent in plain text format so that it may be
      read with the standard ASCII character set. Special characters and
      formatting have been normalized.

      Copyright Notice
      Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the
      American National Biography of the Day and Sample Biographies provided
      that the following statement is preserved on all copies:

      From American National Biography, published by Oxford University
      Press, Inc., copyright 2000 American Council of Learned Societies.
      Further information is available at http://www.anb.org
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.