Few today know even the name William Hickling Prescott, but he was both the most honored and the most popular American historian of the 19th century, when history in the right hands was still a distinguished form of literature. Prescott (1796-1859) chronicled the emergence of Spain as a world power under Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century, recounted the collision of the conquistadores with the Aztec and Inca empires, and portrayed the perfervid religious despotism of King Philip II, the most powerful man in the world.
The Spanish empire had attracted scant attention from North America in the 1830s. Washington Irving, who had been attached to the United States legation in Spain, had written a pair of volumes on Columbus and his companions in 1828 and 1831, and an account of the conquest of Granada in 1829; but the field was clear for an ambitious historian unintimidated by Irving's shadow, and Prescott possessed the concentration and endurance of the master scholar, the ardor of the earnest moralist, and the stylistic flair of the born writer.
He was the amateur par excellence, a Bostonian gentleman who could have lived on his inheritance without doing a jot of work, but who would have found such idleness unbearable. A Harvard College graduate but not a trained historian, he took up the study of Spanish only at the age of 28, after he found German too much trouble to master. Two years later, in 1826, he settled on the subject of his first major work: the History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic. Almost no one knew the convivial gent was writing a book. The three-volume work was published in 1837, and made Prescott's name, at home and in England, for his expertise and elegant vigor. No one was more surprised than the author by this success.
Prescott was 41, but as he told himself, Edward Gibbon and David Hume were in their forties when they began their monumental histories. There was plenty of time for more, if only he hammered away unstintingly. He was no youth but he was the coming man, and he kept on coming. History of the Conquest of Mexico appeared in 1843. He started History of the Conquest of Peru two months later, and it was published in 1847. Barely coming up for air, he plunged into the History of the Reign of Philip II, King of Spain. In 1850 he took an extended break, receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford, greeted in high style by Thomas Macaulay, the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Charles Lyell, and Queen Victoria; he traveled to France, Belgium, and Holland as well, but oddly left Spain off his itinerary. Back in harness at home, he saw the first two volumes of Philip II into print in 1855. In 1858 he suffered a stroke, but resumed work on Philip II, and the third volume came out that year. He was too weak, however, to finish the projected six-volume masterwork, and another stroke finished him in January 1859. Obituaries in newspapers and magazines and learned journals honored his literary eminence and mourned the loss of an extraordinary man.
He was as remarkable a man as he was a writer. That he should have composed such erudite, eloquent histories required almost unimaginable will and strength of mind. When he was a 16-year-old student at Harvard, a crust of bread thrown in a dining hall food fight struck him in the left eye and left it permanently blind. He was able to graduate, and expected to read for the law in his father's office. Then in 1815 a debilitating arthritic attack also afflicted his right eye, leaving him, intermittently, blind altogether. After months in bed, he still could not see clearly. Retinal damage, or maybe nerve damage, was diagnosed. The law would not be for him. Hearing of a new machine on which the blind could write (the noctograph, literally the night writer), he bought one from the inventor, and he would later describe the device in a letter to a friend about his work methods: "It consists of a frame of the size of a sheet of paper, traversed by brass wires, as many as lines are wanted on the page, and with a sheet of carbonated paper, such as is used for getting duplicates, pasted on the reverse side. With an ivory or agate stylus the writer traces his characters between the wires on the carbonated sheet, making indelible marks, which he cannot see, on the white page below."
For the rest of Prescott's life there would be spells of utter blackness, relieved by intervals of dim and painful sight, and occasionally by times of quite clear vision. Somehow he pursued a self-appointed course of study for a career as a man of letters, learning languages, reading widely if not especially deeply, writing essays and reviews on his noctograph, unsure just where his various interests would take him, until he lighted on the lifelong project of Spanish history that consumed him. Prescott would work with a series of secretaries who read to him for several hours daily and transcribed the notes he took on his noctograph. A far-flung network of friends and of scholarly colleagues he never actually met combed Spanish, French, and English libraries and archives for the books and documents essential to getting the history right. His prodigious memory enabled him to compose page after page in his head, going over long passages again and again, and revising as he went. As he approached the end of Ferdinand and Isabella, he wrote that the severity of his handicap had provoked him to despair of ever seeing the book through. But then, he went on, "I met with a remark of Dr. Johnson on Milton at an early period, stating that the poet gave up his history of Britain, on becoming blind, since no one could pursue such investigations under such disadvantages. This remark of the great doctor confirmed me in the resolution to attempt the contrary."
It is natural that a man of such courage and honor should revere similar qualities in others, and Prescott's histories are rich with the praise of high statesmanship and fearless soldiering. It is natural, too, that he should deplore and even revile fecklessness, cruelty, duplicity, cowardice, and savagery—all too often in the very figures he admired. His style and his substance were born of an exemplary manliness. He deployed a clear and forceful American prose, more readily approachable than that of contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Herman Melville, in sharp propulsive narrative and in shrewd assessment of character. Not infrequently the prose turned purple when especially intense admiration or repulsion moved him.
In his first history he laments the dry-rotted weakness of Spain under Henry IV, and he exults when political salvation appears in the persons of Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and Isabella, Queen of Castile, whose marriage united those two states, and whose executive brilliance and martial address gathered in the other two independent Spanish kingdoms, Navarre and the Moorish kingdom of Granada, to form "one great nation, under one common rule."
Isabella is the golden eminence in Prescott's histories. Her people adulated her, and Prescott lavishes her with resplendent enthusiasm.
If there be any being on earth that may be permitted to remind us of the Deity himself, it is the ruler of a mighty empire who employs the high powers entrusted him exclusively for the benefit of his people; who, endowed with intellectual gifts corresponding with his station, in an age of comparative barbarism, endeavours to impart to his land the light of civilization which illumines his own bosom, and to create from the elements of discord the beautiful fabric of social order. Such was Isabella; and such the age in which she lived.
Isabella led the political reform that displaced the ancient and ineffectual nobility and opened high office to intellectual talent of every class; she inspired the army that in 1491 conquered Granada, the stronghold of the Moors, and she insured that the defeated people be permitted to practice their Muslim faith and retain their customs, as the Moors had permitted the Christians in their redoubt of Islam to practice theirs; she underwrote the voyages of Christopher Columbus, who had been widely dismissed as half-mad at best; she was the soul of piety, and her faith was her greatest glory.
And yet Isabella could not avoid the less savory aspects of the age, and particularly of the Roman Catholic faith, then corrupt with fear and hatred, according to Prescott. The Holy Office of the Inquisition was revived under her rule. Her very piety made her credulous and submissive to the worst monstrosities of priestcraft. The rack, pulley, and fire became the authorized instruments of true belief, as enforced by the Dominican inquisitor-general, Tomás de Torquemada. "This man's zeal was of such an extravagant character, that it may almost shelter itself under the name of insanity.... Many a bloody page of history attests the fact, that fanaticism, armed with power, is the sorest evil which can befall a nation."
The Jews of Spain, who had prospered in that land more than anywhere else in the diaspora, were singled out for particular unfavorable attention, and in 1492 were expelled by royal edict, after Torquemada had hurled a crucifix at the too lenient sovereigns and accused them of selling out Christ for Hebrew silver. The edict's "extreme injustice and cruelty rendered it especially repugnant to the naturally humane disposition of the Queen. But she had been early schooled to distrust her own reason, and indeed the natural suggestions of humanity, in cases of conscience."
Seven years later, the policy of toleration toward the Moors was abruptly abrogated, under the direction of Archbishop Francisco Ximenes, a worthy successor to Torquemada. In Granada thousands of Arabic books and irreplaceable manuscripts, including many copies of the Koran, were publicly burned. The Muslim populace raged. Moorish villages in the Alpuxarras mountains rose up in insurrection. Swift and brutal suppression ensued; King Ferdinand himself, in ornate chivalric finery, took to the field. The Moors of Granada were brought to heel, converting to Catholicism en masse—nominally anyway. Outlying pockets of infidelity remained, however, and in 1502, under Ximenes's spell, the sovereigns decreed that all unbaptized Moors must leave the country. "It is a singular paradox, that Christianity, whose doctrines inculcate unbounded charity, should have been made so often an engine of persecution; while Mahometanism, whose principles are those of avowed intolerance, should have exhibited, at least till later times, a truly philosophical spirit of toleration." Prescott may be getting carried away here; but even this vehement outburst is not without nuance, and he must be taken seriously. The Turks of that time, threatening the heart of Europe with fire and sword, he writes, were in the Islamic vanguard, and were truly ferocious and cruel to Christians; but justified Christian enmity toward militant Islam spilled over into oppression of the pacified Moors, who were punished unjustly for rebelling against unjust punishment.
The world-historical achievement of Ferdinand and Isabella's reign was the discovery of America, and their grandson Charles V, and his son Philip II, oversaw what Prescott calls "the most brilliant passages in the history of Spanish adventure in the New World...the conquests of Mexico and Peru—the two States which combined with the largest extent of empire a refined social polity and considerable progress in the arts of civilization."
But there is civilization and there is civilization. The Aztec peculiar institution that made the deepest impression upon the conquistadores, and that has defined the Aztecs for posterity, was the maniacal religious rite of human sacrifice, in which the priest would hack open the living victim's chest with an obsidian blade and rip out his hot beating heart. Men, women, and children were all eligible to be destroyed in this quaint practice, depending on which god needed propitiation at the moment. Comely Aztec youths enjoyed particular civic favor as they went under the knife. Hundreds of thousands of captives taken in war, which was perpetual, also proceeded to the shambles. And there was always feasting afterward, as the warriors who had taken the sacrificed captives in battle served up the corpses to their friends, in "a banquet teeming with delicious beverages and delicate viands, prepared with art, and attended by both sexes, who...conducted themselves with all the decorum of civilized life. Surely, never were refinement and the extreme of barbarism brought so closely in contact with each other." This exquisite Aztec cuisine really appalls Prescott, but when he is in a certain mood, mere human sacrifice does not agitate him unduly: "It may be rather said to ennoble [the victim] by devoting him to the gods." And of course Prescott must mention here that the Inquisition's bonfires of unbelievers consumed its many thousands in a death more painful than primitive cardiac excision; moreover, the Holy Office condemned its victims to slow roasting not only in this world but in the next.
Despite such obligatory abhorrence for the vicious zealotry, Prescott is no raving multiculturalist, for whom European civilization is no better, and probably worse, than native American barbarism. Not to say he isn't tempted by moral equivalence, now and then, but he always comes around to seeing reason, harsh as it might be.
The debasing institutions of the Aztecs furnish the best apology for their conquest. It is true, the conquerors brought along with them the Inquisition. But they also brought Christianity, whose benign radiance would still survive when the fierce flames of fanaticism should be extinguished; dispelling those dark forms of horror which had so long brooded over the fair regions of Anahuac.
The conquering race had been appointed by Providence, Prescott declares, as the salvation of the benighted New World. Hernando Cortes and his men understood themselves to be the Crusaders of their time and place. Like militant Islam, whose military power was the most effective instrument of religious conversion, the Spanish adventurers carried the Word on the point of the sword. The religious lesson appeared to stick best that way, he contends, for the glorious cause of the Cross, as it had for the inglorious purposes of the Crescent.
Prescott exults repeatedly in the Spaniards' romantic chivalry, allied to their religious ardor. The French sent missionaries to the New World, only too eager for martyrdom; the Dutch went there for pelf; the English sought civil and religious freedom.
But the Spaniard came over to the New World in the true spirit of a knight-errant, courting adventure however perilous, wooing danger, as it would seem, for its own sake. With sword and lance, he was ever ready to do battle for the Faith; and as he raised his old war-cry of ‘St. Jago,' he fancied himself fighting under the banner of the military apostle, and felt his single arm a match for more than a hundred infidels!
Even so, Prescott, who scrupulously looks into every dark moral corner, notes the frightfulness without which the Spaniards would not have achieved the surrender of the Aztec capital—that is to say, its utter destruction. But as soon as Prescott is done deploring the atrocities, he extenuates them, if only by deploring Spanish atrocities elsewhere. "It may seem slight praise to say that the followers of Cortes used no blood-hounds to hunt down their wretched victims, as in some other parts of the Continent, nor exterminated a peaceful and submissive population in mere wantonness of cruelty, as in the [Caribbean] Islands." Cortes and his men did only what they had to do, Prescott writes, in order to succeed in their worthy enterprise. Perhaps the meek shall one day inherit the earth, but in the Spanish New World the Christian inheritors claimed their prize by audacity and ruthlessness. In the History of the Conquest of Mexico, Prescott celebrates the audacity, pretty well forgives the ruthlessness, and ultimately honors the victory of militant Christianity over native abomination. This history shows Prescott at his most winning: he tells a ripping good yarn, aware of moral complication but not seduced into haplessness or incoherence.
Love of Gold
The History of the Conquest of Peru depicts the collision between a less vicious native people and a Spanish soldiery for whom spreading the Gospel was hardly a prime concern. The Inca empire, unlike the Aztec, preferred to expand by "gentleness, more potent than violence. [The Incas] sought to soften the hearts of the rude tribes around them, and melt them by acts of condescension and kindness." But rude tribes being what they are, war was a constant necessity. Nonetheless, the conquering Incas treated their subject peoples with solicitude, and generally improved their condition, so that without continual violent suppression, the empire thrived, its various subjects "under the influence of a common religion, common language, and common government, knit together as one nation, animated by a spirit of love for its institutions, and devoted loyalty to its sovereign."
The objective of relentless imperial expansion was domestic tranquility. The ordinary Peruvian lived his entire life in the station of his birth. "No man could be rich, no man could be poor in Peru; but all might enjoy, and did enjoy, a competence." (The Inca sovereign and the nobility of course enjoyed something more than a competence.) This assurance of security came at a cost.
[The] genius of the government...penetrated into the most private recesses of domestic life, allowing no man, however humble, to act for himself, even in those personal matters in which none but himself, or his family at most, might be supposed to be interested.... He was not allowed even to be happy in his own way. The government of the Incas was the mildest, but the most searching, of despotisms.
Prescott does not say so, but the Inca regime sounds like the extreme form of the soft tyranny that Alexis de Tocqueville, writing several years before, saw as the grave moral threat to an American democracy increasingly inclined to place equality above freedom.
Francisco Pizarro and his company, who descended upon the Inca nation in 1532, professed to be on the customary Spanish mission of saving heathen souls; but when the conquistadores seized the Inca monarch, Atahuallpa, he promptly discerned "a lurking appetite more potent in most of their bosoms than either religion or ambition. This was the love of gold." Gold the Inca ruler had plenty of. He promised Pizarro that, in exchange for his freedom, within two months he would fill the large apartment in which they stood with gold, and an adjoining room twice over with silver. From the ends of the empire the treasure poured in. The Spaniards melted down superb artworks and religious articles to form ingots, more readily portable as booty. The booty was unprecedented: worth over $15 million in the money of Prescott's time.
Atahuallpa insisted he had kept his promise, and clamored for his freedom. But the promised ransom was not yet delivered in full; priests guarded an abundance of imperial gold in sacred temples. Rumors of an Inca uprising, at Atahuallpa's instigation, frightened the Spanish troops. Their uproar forced Pizarro to put the king on trial for his life. The charges ranged from adultery to idolatry to fratricide to usurping the throne, but the accusation was inciting insurrection against the innocent Spaniards. Guilt and execution by burning were foregone conclusions. When Atahuallpa was bound to the stake, a Dominican friar promised that if the Inca agreed to be baptized, the punishment would be commuted to death by garrote—an ignoble but less agonizing way to die. Thus Atahuallpa chose to die a Christian. Earlier he had told Pizarro that the Spaniards' God must surely be superior to the Incas' sun god, who had allowed the pious monarch to be taken captive. Prescott suggests that Atahuallpa was nevertheless the moral superior of Pizarro and his band. "They dreaded him as an enemy, and they had done him too many wrongs to think that he could be their friend. Yet his conduct towards them from the first had been most friendly; and they repaid it with imprisonment, robbery, and death."
In 1541 conspirators assassinated Francisco Pizarro, the man "who had lorded it over the land with as absolute a sway as was possessed by its hereditary Incas." Pizarro's brother Gonzalo later seized supreme power in Peru by force of arms, and conducted himself like a maharajah. But King Charles V branded him a renegade, and dispatched Pedro de la Gasca to deal with him. Gonzalo was defeated and beheaded. Gasca's governorship brought a modicum of order to the colony and a more benevolent policy toward the Indians.
That is not to suggest that the Spanish monarchy under Charles V or Philip II was notable for benevolence toward any of his subjects. In the three volumes of Philip's history that Prescott completed, the large part consists of the king's prosecuting with extreme prejudice the venerable religious war against all heretics and infidels, especially those within his empire, including Spanish Lutherans, Dutch Calvinists, and of course the Moors. Philip was no heroic warrior; he dwelt mostly in his study. From there he ruled by terror, the most powerful king in Christendom, and faithful servant of the Inquisition.
Prescott's regard for strong rulers and daring soldiers; his taste for the romance of chivalry; his reverence for the Christian ideals of peace and brotherhood, however unattainable; his Yankee Unitarianism that bore a profound antipathy for many aspects of the Catholic faith; his responsiveness to the virtues of alien peoples, no matter how terrible their vices; his horror at the barbarism not only of obvious barbarians but also of nations that esteemed themselves to be highly civilized: this tumult in his mind and soul tugged him every which way. He took pains to understand every point of view; he bent as far as he could to accommodate all manner of human difference; and then exploded in rage at the cruelty and folly and inhumanity that lie in the muck at the bottom of every sentiment and belief that he had struggled to find something good about. Nothing human was alien to him; and then a great deal was.
In the Conquest of Peru, Prescott considers the difference between the Spanish conquest of Central and South America and the English settlement of North America:
What a contrast did these children of Southern Europe present to the Anglo-Saxon races who scattered themselves along the great northern division of the Western hemisphere! For the principle of action with these latter was not avarice, nor the most specious pretext of proselytism; but independence,—independence religious and political. To secure this, they were content to earn a bare subsistence by a life of frugality and toil. They asked nothing from the soil but the reasonable returns of their own labour. No golden visions threw a deceitful halo around their path and beckoned them onwards through seas of blood to the subversion of an unoffending dynasty. They were content with the slow but steady progress of their social polity.
And yet while Prescott was writing that tortured history, the United States was going to war with Mexico. In a letter on May 15, 1846, Prescott bitterly derided the Polk Administration's "schemes of indefinite appropriation," founded on "a happy confidence in our superiority over every and all the nations of Christendom combined together." "One would suppose that the millions of uncultivated acres inviting settlement and the hand of civilization that lie within our present limits might satisfy the most craving cupidity." The Northerner with his "sober business-like habits" knows when enough is enough. The frontiersman of the Far West, however, has never heard that word, and plunges headlong into "unparalleled folly." Prescott for his part finds refuge "in Peruvian hills, where the devildoms I read of—black enough—have at least no reference to ourselves."
Prescott was asked to write the history of our Mexican War. It would have been a spectacular hit. But he declined. He believed that he had already told that story, more than once, as it had unfolded in another time, and with another power. One cannot but suspect, however, that if W.H. Prescott were alive today he would consider Texans fortunate not to be living in Mexico.