William H. Prescott: America’s First Great Historian


William H. Prescott was mentioned in the preceding article here, but I felt that he merited a more extended treatment in an article devoted to him alone.  He was America’s first great historian, known for his heroic style, and for his ability to fuse a meticulous attention to original sources with a striking narrative power.

His volumes on the history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru are still read today, after nearly two centuries; and despite advances in archaeology and the historical arts since his day, he remains an authoritative voice.

For our purposes here, what lends his story even more interest is the fact that he overcame severe physical limitations to achieve great things.  The struggle against adversity is a theme that exerts a continual fascination for me, whether it be in book-lined libraries, the frozen Antarctic, or on the swells of rolling seas.  The same spirit is needed to confront all situations.

He was born into a distinguished family in Massachusetts in 1796.  In those days, coming from a family of means certainly helped.  When his family moved to Boston in 1808, the young William was able to secure access to the Boston Athenaeum (which housed a collection of precious volumes) through the connections of his father, who was a prosperous attorney.

There he absorbed that great love for books and learning that would be of such use to him later in life; and there, too, he acquired an easy familiarity with classical narrative styles and rhetoric.

He enrolled in Harvard College in 1811, but while a student there, he was the victim of a strange misfortune which shows the power of Fate in shaping the events of our lives.  Prescott was hit in the eye by a crust of bread thrown at him during a food fight, and this somehow caused severe retinal damage.  He did not become completely blind, but his eyesight degenerated to the point where he was not able to write without the use either of assistants, or a writing device called a noctograph.

This handicap did not cause him to abandon himself to despair or to the usual diversions of the idle rich.  With more traditional careers closed off to him, he now found that he had the time and the resources to devote himself wholly to literary activities.

It took him a while to settle on his subject.  Like his predecessor, the great historian Edward Gibbon, he at first flirted with various themes that caught his interest, including a foray into Italian narrative poetry. Gibbon famously mused among the ruins of old Rome while on a visit to the Forum, and came by the idea of writing a history of the fall of Rome.

Prescott followed a similar trajectory, toying with the cultures and languages of several European nations before settling to this theme.  Eventually, the history of Spain captured his imagination.  Problems soon developed, for while Prescott knew Latin and Italian, he was no sufficiently fluent in Spanish to conduct research on his own in that language.

And it took time to find the right assistant.  In the early 19th century, there was not very much in print in English about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, or about Spanish history in general, and Prescott was forced to break new ground.


By the mid-1830s, Prescott had finished the History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, a history of the reign of these two critically influential monarchs in Spanish history.  He was initially unsure whether to publish the work, on which he had worked so much, due to uncertainties about its reception.  It did unexpectedly well, surprising both him and his publishers.  A pirated translation even found its way into France, much to his chagrin.

This initial work shows him at his best:  a vigorous yet dignified English prose, meticulous attention to political and military details, and a focus on the character of historical figures.  He was not interested in economic or social forces, much like his contemporaries; but in this he can hardly be faulted.  Here, at least, was a patient work of scholarship that showed the hand of a master.

Greater things would soon follow.  Prescott turned his attention to the Spanish experience in the Americas.  There was almost nothing of any worth written in this area, even in Spanish.  The chief sources for story of Hernan Cortes’s conquest were Bernal Dias’s engaging first-hand account, and the chronicles of Spanish clerics in Mexico, such as Bishop Landa.

In 1843, his masterpiece, the History of the Conquest of Mexico, appeared.  This was the work for which today he remains most famous.  It shows a mastery of the source material, and a narrative style that owes much to the classical historians.

An inheritance from his father in the mid-1840s enabled him to continue the writing of history.  Having finished with Mexico, he now turned to that other Indian civilization conquered by Spain, the Incas.  Prescott was by now a famous literary figure.  He even was able to secure an audience with President James Polk in Washington.

In 1847, he released the History of the Conquest of Peru.  The book sold very well, going through an initial printing run of 7500 copies.  Both this work and his history of the Mexican conquest were translated into several different languages.

His last major literary project was a History of the Reign of Philip the Second of Spain.  He labored on it for years, and was able to finish the first two volumes by 1855.  Work on the third volume was cut short by a stroke he suffered in 1858.  From that point until his death in 1859, he primarily occupied his time with revising his earlier works.

Considering the limitations (both personal and professional) that he was working under, his achievements were incredible.  He essentially taught himself Spanish, and was forced to rely on a unique system of note-taking and referencing his sources.  In this he was partially helped by his eidetic memory (the ability to retain large amounts of information from limited exposure to it).

He took no notice of cultural or economic history, but this was largely the tradition of his era.  He was the first American historian to pay close attention to original sources, and his footnotes and bibliographies are gold mines of arcana.

But what impresses the reader most, perhaps, was his ability to redirect his life into a productive direction after being hit by misfortune.  Working for days on end in near blindness, he showed a level of patience and discipline that few so unfettered men have equaled.

Like a soldier in the expedition of Cortes, he accepted his lot, and kept moving forward, focused only on his purposes.  For the writing of great works of history, and the idea of conquest itself, with him had become nearly one and the same.


Read More:  What I Learned From Translating