Prescott’s Conquests

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.