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Prescott’s Conquests

June 2024
15min read

The great historian who so eloquently described the taking of Mexico and Peru won a great private victory of his own in the quiet of his study on Beacon Hill.

“When you see Prescott, give him my cordial remembrances. You two are shelved together for immortality.” Over a century ago Washington Irving thus prophesied an eternity of readers for two New England scholars, George Ticknor, first American master of European literature, and his close friend, the historian William H. Prescott. It is a coincidence of America’s cultural flowering in the nineteenth century that three of its principal figures, Ticknor, Irving, and Prescott, should have been united by their devotion to the relatively unknown field of Spanish history and literature. Today, as Americans turn increasingly to rereading and revaluing their past and as the centenary of Prescott’s death in 1859 approaches, it is fitting to examine his claim upon the reading public, to see whether or not it is still valid, and to measure his stature as man and historian.

With Irving, Prescott was the first American to devote profound study to the Hispanic world, our first historian of Spain and Latin America, those old yet new lands. He wrote two books of particular interest to all Americans, the Conquest of Mexico, which he published in 1843, and the Conquest of Peru, which appeared four years later. Both were immediate best sellers in the United States and England. The first, and expensive, three-volume edition of the Conquest of Mexico sold 4,000 copies in four months in the United States. Both books were soon translated into several foreign languages.

There are good reasons for this early and continuing success, for each book is a brilliant account of the triumph of Spanish conquistadors over a rich, populous, and unknown Indian empire. Nor are all the courage and drama restricted to Prescott’s printed pages. There was much in his own life, and to know the man behind the works is to understand one of the finest artistic and moral triumphs in American letters.

Prescott was semiblind. One of his eyes was almost totally sightless as the result of a college prank in which he was an innocent bystander. Soon after he suffered this wound his other eye was afflicted by a rheumatoid inflammation; during the rest of his life his vision with this eye wavered between good and painfully feeble. He had planned to become a lawyer, but this misfortune forced him to abandon that hope and, indeed, hope of any career. After his slow recovery from the physical and mental shocks caused by the double attack on his sight, Prescott did no more than devote himself to the life of an idle and well-to-do young gentleman. He was wealthy and he had a famous name (one of his grandfathers was a hero of the battle of Bunker Hill). He traveled a little, went out much in society, and read, within the limits of his sight and his desultory interests. In short, he drifted.

In 1824, when he was 28 years old, he began to plan a more fruitful future. Much influenced by Ticknor, who frequently read his Harvard lectures on Spanish literature to his half-blind friend, Prescott came to the conclusion that he had a vocation in literature, then narrowed this down to the writing of history—history then was closer to literature than it usually is today—and finally to Spanish history.

Once Prescott had made up his mind to enter the laborious discipline of history, he did not automatically become a historian. He next gave two years to general preparation for the work ahead. He read political theory and studied the languages, literature, and history of the major western European countries. Then followed ten years of specific historical work: organizing a technique for study, accumulating and reading all relevant documents and books, and finally writing his first book, Ferdinand and Isabella. During that decade there were not ten people in the city of Boston who knew that the affable and apparently indolent Prescott, who kept up his long daily horseback rides to Jamaica Pond and went out much in the evening, was writing a book which was to bring him national and international acclaim when it was published in 1837.

Fewer still knew the author’s method of work. On some days his eyes would stand two hours of reading, on others, not ten minutes. To absorb and shape the vast amount of historical data and ideas which he compressed into his books he invented his own technique.

When he had selected a theme for a chapter he had his secretary arrange all the materials which had been obtained. These were read to him, in itself a difficult operation, for Spanish was practically an unknown tongue in a city where French and German and Italian had not long since been considered outlandish, and Prescott was compelled to teach his successive readers and secretaries to pronounce the Spanish words of his books and manuscripts so that he could understand them—so discouraging a task that more than once he thought of abandoning his chosen course. While the reading was in progress, Prescott sat with his back to the light (later he developed an intricate system of movable shades and drapes to direct and soften the daylight entering his study) taking notes on his noctograph. This was a frame crossed by guide wires and holding a sheet of carbon paper to be written on with a stylus. It obviated what Prescott termed “the two great difficulties in the way of a blind man’s writing … his not knowing when the ink is exhausted in his pen, and when his lines run into one another.”

The notes, often difficult to decipher from the uncertainty with which the letters and words were formed, were then copied by the secretary in a large hand. Prescott read the notes, if his eyes were up to it, or had the secretary read them as often as necessary for the author to fix them in his memory. Then he composed, wholly in his mind, for written drafts were luxuries which his sight would not permit. He concentrated and arranged and rearranged his thoughts into sentences, paragraphs, pages, until the chapter he was working on was formed in his mind as clearly as though in print.

Some chapters he thus mentally constructed and reconstituted as many as sixteen times; sometimes as many as sixty future printed pages were composed and gripped in his powerful mind—not only remarkable feats of memory but also superb achievements of artistic creation. Then he would begin to write on his noctograph, swiftly, exhausting the stored-up words. The finished work was read to him, corrected, copied by the secretary, and laid away for the printer.

It few knew Prescott’s working habits, many knew the man about town. He was handsome, with a square jaw, a shock of curly brown hair, and a prominent, well-shaped nose which not only conformed to his other features but also to the local suspicion that in more than one way Boston’s leaders resembled the Romans. Gay and kindly, generous with quietly given charity to the city’s poor, immensely popular as a dinner companion, Prescott was devoted to his family and to his pattern of life: winter and spring in town, summer at the shore at Nahant and the beloved fall at Pepperell, thirty miles northwest of Boston, at the family homestead standing on land held by the original Indian title.

Behind the affable exterior Prescott waged with himself a lifelong struggle. By disposition indolent, by inclination gregarious, he had a sufficiently large income to be free of the need to work. And his damaged vision afforded more than enough physical and psychological excuse for idleness.

His battle for self-mastery—a New England battle of conscience—is revealed in a combination of traits which form an odd counterpoint to his apparently harmonious character. He had a nervous laugh, often merely infectious, but sometimes uncontrollable, hysterical. He was a person of uncounted good resolutions, secret, childish goads to labor, resolutions verbally made or written down and sealed away, only to be broken, amended, reamended, and finally rescinded for a new set. He placed curious wagers on his ability to keep his resolutions, calling on a friend to make the bet against him but giving his opponent no information as to what he was betting on. In due time Prescott would appear to pay or to collect the amount of the wager, leaving his friend no wiser, but a little richer or poorer.

The historian doted upon his parents, both of whom lived on into his middle life. He resided in their home even after his own marriage and, indeed, had no home of his own until his father died, when the younger Prescott was 48 years old. Nor did he have money of his own earning, being dependent upon the family income, although in later years his book royalties brought in a considerable sum. As his parents protected him, they also had to prod him. When the manuscript of his first book was ready for the printer, Prescott was stricken by fear of its inadequacy and of becoming the laughingstock of his circle. He did not release the manuscript until goaded by his father, who told him, “The man who writes a book which he is afraid to publish is a coward.”

On the December day when his father was buried, as Prescott was closely following the bier into the crypt, his eyes were brushed by the coffin’s drapes. “Yes,” he sadly told Ticknor that evening, “my eye suffered very much from the wind and dust that came out of the passage, and he protected me to the last, as he always had.” The historian himself had a deep fear of being mistakenly interred alive and ordered that at his death a principal vein be severed before his coffin was finally closed.

One may see these traits as the traumatic effects of his years of physical suffering and incapacitation, and find in his literary labors a compulsion to overcome frustration and weakness. But this is Prescott in a minor key—not the man of courage who nearly always presented his lighter side to his family and friends, who was unafraid to risk his crippled sight with each hour spent in reading or writing, and who could write wryly of himself to a Spanish friend, “As I have only half an eye of my own, and that more for show than use, my progress is necessarily no more than a snail’s gallop.”

Prescott never saw Spain or Latin America. His collection of manuscript copies—eight thousand folio pages for the Conquest of Mexico alone—he gathered in Europe entirely by proxy and by means of a vast correspondence, through friends or paid agents or from helpful foreign scholars. The historian Jared Sparks, Edward Everett, George Ticknor on his extensive Continental travels, and many others searched on Prescott’s behalf into archives and libraries in half a dozen European nations.

Chief among his foreign collaborators was a Spanish scholar named Gayangos, whose perfect command of English and expert knowledge of Spanish history enabled him to serve Prescott superbly for twenty years. Prescott paid Gayangos’ expenses for travel and copyists; beyond this the Spaniard would not go in accepting the compensation repeatedly offered by the American historian. Also important to Prescott’s success in obtaining material from Spain was the cordial support given him by Fernández de Navarrete, president of the Royal Academy of History. Navarrete gave Prescott access to the academy’s treasure of manuscripts and opened his own valuable collection to the scholar.

Little wonder that Prescott referred to Spain as “the country of my adoption,” continuing, “I may truly call Spain so, for I have lived in it—in spirit at least—the last thirty years more of my time than in my own land.” Spain was the land where “old manuscripts and old wines of the noblest kind flourish side by side—the land of the hidalgo—the land that I love.”

The historian traveled seldom and reluctantly outside the tiny triangle of Boston, the North Shore, and Pepperell. Socially, too, he lived within close bounds. He and his wife were married in the same house where her parents had been wed. He lived at Harvard in the room where his father had lived, and where his own son would reside. Not one of the four houses in which he and his parents dwelt in Boston during his lifetime was more than a few hundred yards from the other or from Beacon Hill—when not on it.

Yet Prescott was an adventurer. Through his clouded eyes he saw the conquest of the New World, and he conveyed to his pages, for others to share, the excitement felt by conquistadors who penetrated the perilous kingdoms where no white man had ever been.

The Spanish conquests of Peru and Mexico were epics in fact. Prescott made them epics of literature. He recreated their unity of action, the brilliance of their settings, and the heroism and tragedy of their actors. He wrote of the conquest of Mexico in the introduction to his Conquest of Peru: “Indeed few subjects can present a parallel with that, for the purposes either of the historian or the poet. The natural development of the story, there, is precisely what would be prescribed by the severest rules of art. The conquest of the country is the great end always in view of the reader. From the first landing of the Spaniards on the soil, their subsequent adventures, their battles and negotiations, their ruinous retreat, their rally and final siege, all tend to this grand result, till the long series is closed by the downfall of the capital. In the march of events, all moves forward to this consummation. It is a magnificent epic, in which the unity of interest is complete.”

Deeds of daring fill the pages: Cortés dismantling his ships (burning, Prescott incorrectly had it) on the mysterious shore of Mexico to forestall even the thought of retreat from the perils ahead; Pizarro sailing south from Panama along the unknown coast, and at last, in the face of disease, hunger, and death from the Indians, on an island off the coast of Ecuador, drawing a line in the sand from east to west with his sword and challenging his reluctant men to cross and continue onward with him: “There lies Peru with its riches; here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian. For my part, I go to the south.” Thirteen crossed, and by their boldness Spain gained yet another kingdom.

Here too are stories of a breed of men who amid the toil and peril of their march to Montezuma’s capital turned aside out of sheer energy and curiosity to scale one of the world’s highest volcanoes, Popocatepetl; men of whom it could be recorded as it was of each of the four brothers who led in the conquest of Peru: “To say that he was a Pizarro is enough to attest his claim to valor.”

Not that Prescott’s narratives are exclusively concerned with portraying the Spanish conquerors. He describes as well the Aztec and Peruvian Indians prior to the arrival of the white men. These parts of his work are fully as interesting as those dealing with the conquests, but they are historically less accurate.

The fault is not Prescott’s. He employed all the sources known at the time when he wrote, he scrupulously analyzed and compared them, and he stated their limitations. His appraisals of the two greatest Indian civilizations of America have been considerably altered in detail by archeologists and anthropologists (whose interest Prescott was primarily responsible for awakening), although today’s knowledge is far from complete. Yet his broad presentation of Aztec and Inca society remains valid. Although he tended to equate Indian institutions too readily with those of medieval and Renaissance Europe and perhaps to paint too romantic a picture of native life, his rugged nineteenth-century liberalism was on guard, pointing to the defects of these societies as he saw them.

The Inca empire, for example, which in its economic organization approached an ideal agrarian communism and in its social and political organization was an admirably integrated hierarchy, may hold much charm for the twentieth-century reader, who will find it pictured in Prescott’s pages as a stable regime of justice and security for all. But the author also had his own beliefs, which he did not hesitate to obtrude upon his readers: staunch confidence in representative government and belief in the inevitability of material and human progress, the whole founded upon faith in reason. He recognized the rule of the Inca, the emperor, for what it was—total rule.

“Where there is no free agency, there can be no morality,” he continued with Lockean conviction, for “if that government is the best which is felt the least … then of all governments devised by man the Peruvian has the least real claim to our admiration.” Nor did Prescott forbear to point up his assertions by contrasting the Inca kingship and the government of the United States—“our own free republic” in which “the experiment still going on is humanity’s best hope.”

He also applied his liberal judgments to the Aztec empire. The fate of that confederacy, he wrote, “may serve as a striking proof that a government which does not rest on the sympathies of its subjects cannot long abide; that human institutions, when not connected with human prosperity and progress, must fall,—if not before the increasing light of civilization, by the hand of violence; by violence from within if not from without. And who shall lament their fall?”

Prescott’s writings have defects of style and substance. Occasionally he confused and misattributed his Spanish manuscript sources. He did not understand the nature of the encomienda, the basic Spanish system for economic control of the Indians, which was not a method of land distribution but of tribute payment. His style is sometimes prolix and there are occasional digressions which detract from the main narrative. In general, however, he writes lucidly and powerfully, in a manner appropriate to the grand events which he relates. Read him, for example, on the meeting of the tiny Spanish army with the forces of one of the Aztec confederate nations: “The Spaniards had not advanced a quarter of a league when they came in sight of the Tlascalan army. Its dense array stretched far and wide over a vast plain or meadow ground, about six miles square. Its appearance justified the report which had been given of its numbers. Nothing could be more picturesque than the aspect of these Indian battalions, with the naked bodies of the common soldiers gaudily painted, the fantastic helmets of the chiefs glittering with gold and precious stones, and the glowing panoplies of featherwork which decorated their persons. Innumerable spears and darts tipped with points of transparent itzli, or fiery copper, sparkled bright in the morning sun, like the phosphoric gleams playing on the surface of a troubled sea, while the rear of the mighty host was dark with the shadows of banners, on which were emblazoned the armorial bearings of the Tlascalan and Otomie chiefs.”

Prescott was stylist and historian in superb combination. Notwithstanding what he termed the “seductions” of his subjects, his standard of accuracy and his objective were never lowered. He wrote: “I have conscientiously endeavored to distinguish fact from fiction, and to establish the narrative on as broad a basis as possible of contemporary evidence.” The task of the historian, in his opinion, was “to fill up the outline with the coloring of life,” yet “to place the whole on the foundation of copious citations from the original authorities.” His integrity to his sources was as complete as he could make it. If the ultimate synthesis was his own, so it must be with all written history that is more than a lumpish assortment of data. His endeavor was one of the highest and most difficult for a historian to fulfill; he strove to make his reader “a contemporary of the sixteenth century”—in the raw New World, he might have added.

He heavily discounted the long-accepted but exaggerated accounts of the destruction worked upon the Indian populations by the Spanish conquerors and colonists. It was on the basis of these accounts, further embellished, that other European powers, especially the English, served their own imperial ambitions by constructing the “black legend” of the Spanish conquest and settlement of America. Yet Prescott made no saints of the Spanish soldiers. He contrasted their spiritual claims and their temporal objectives with an irony as biting as that of Gibbon in his judgments on early Christianity.

Were the Spaniards hypocrites? Prescott thought not. “Whatever the vices of the Castilian cavalier, hypocrisy was not among the number. He felt that he was battling for the Cross, and under this conviction … he was blind to the baser motives that mingled in the enterprise.”

Prescott denounced the Inquisition (here the historian’s own sentiments led him into a mild distortion of the facts, for the Inquisition as a formal tribunal was not introduced into the Indies until a later time) and denounced it so severely that Aztec human sacrifices seem more acceptable to him than some of the acts of the churchmen. None the less, he applauded the missionary work of the priests, many of whom “were men of singular humility, who followed in the track of the conquerors to scatter the seeds of spiritual truth.” The conquistadors did evil, but they “also brought Christianity, whose benign influence would still survive when the fierce flames of fanaticism should be extinguished.”

He also pointed out a fact about his own religious and national inheritance: “The effort to Christianize the heathen is an honorable characteristic of the Spanish conquerors. The Puritan, with equal religious zeal, did comparatively little for the conversion of the Indians.”

Within the context of ideas and the condition of historical studies in the United States in the first half of the past century, Prescott stands out as a mighty pioneer. Lacking a native historical tradition and technique, lacking the libraries and bibliographies available to scholars who followed him, his path was additionally beset by personal obstacles. Despite all this, his narratives of two of mankind’s most daring military conquests must still be awarded the historian’s highest accolade: they are definitive. More readable and accurate than Sparks, more productive than Motley, more objective than Bancroft, Prescott has but one peer among American historians, Parkman, who also suffered severely from physical disability.

Prescott’s books share the nature of the granite edifices of the Incas which he describes in the Conquest of Peru: they are massive creations of a master craftsman, handsomely and tightly contrived. With time’s passage a few stones have become dislodged or chipped, but the structure stands firm, perhaps forever.

It was dedication and hard work that won Prescott mastery of his profession and of himself. This may be seen even in the small, amusing details of his self-discipline, for example, in his standing order that on cold mornings, did he not arise promptly upon being called, his manservant should pull the covers from his bed. It may be seen at the long, late parties where he always fixed for himself an early hour of departure and held to it.

This Bostonian had much of the Spaniard in him. He was gay, yet dignified, even austere; often indolent, yet even more often energetic; willful and courageous. But his tempered New England conscience was the impelling force in his life, driving him to hard work ruled by high standards. The adventurer living on the edge of darkness triumphed over the sociable literary dilettante. He gained another victory which his fellow Americans understood and admired: he capitalized his principle by investing his inherited wealth in books and manuscripts and labor, and constructing from these materials a national and international reputation greater than that of any of his business or lawyer friends.

Prescott did more. He was one of the first to set out on the then untraveled roads between the United States and Spain and Latin America; by his efforts our country today is closer to these nations.

One hundred years ago his books were read for their fine style and somewhat later, with the development of historical studies, they were recognized as superb history. Having passed both tests, after ten decades, he continues to attract new readers, who seek him out as a master craftsman of American literature. And behind the books stands the man, for Prescott’s conquests were not two, but three: the third, and perhaps the greatest, was his own life.

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