and no for someone quite uniue: Benjamin Prat
- 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.
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William Pencak. "Prat, Benjamin";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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