Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?


In 1847 that Boston gentleman and man of letters William Hickling Prescott concluded twenty years of labor on the history of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella and on the conquests of Mexico and Peru. It was a noble edifice that he had raised, the most impressive literary monument yet reared in the New World. So said Daniel Webster: a comet had blazed out on the world in full splendor. So said Lord Holland, over in London: it was the most important historical work since Gibbon. So said the great Alexander von Humboldt, who had embraced the entire cosmos. The Royal Academy of History at Madrid, the Royal Society of Berlin, the Institute in Paris, welcomed the Bostonian to honorary membership. And from John Quincy Adams came the grudging tribute: that the reader could not tell whether the author was Protestant or Catholic, monarchist or republican.

To Prescott that was the highest praise of all. Confronted with three of the most bloodstained chapters of history, Prescoll tried to avoid moral judgment. How easy to condemn Cardinal Jiménez, for his reliance on the Inquisition; how easy to denounce Cortés for the treachery and greed and brutality which accompanied the swift subjugation of Mexico; how easy to execrate the wretched Pizarro for cruelties almost unparalleled in the history of conquest. Prescott was not unaware of the embarrassments of impartiality: “to American and English readers,” he wrote in the preface to his Mexico , “acknowledging so different a moral standard from that of the sixteenth century, I may possibly be thought too indulgent to the errors of the Conquerors.” And he confessed that he had indeed “given them the benefit of such mitigating reflections as might be suggested by the circumstances and the period in which they lived.” Two considerations, not entirely consistent, stayed the intuitive judgment of the moralist in Prescott. First, the familiar argument that the standards of the sixteenth century were not those of the nineteenth, and that we should not arbitrarily impose our standards upon the past. “It is far from my intention,” wrote Prescott, “to vindicate the cruel deeds of the old Conquerors. Let them lie heavy on their heads. They were an iron race who periled life and fortune in the cause; and as they made little account of clanger and suffering for themselves, they had little sympathy to spare for their unfortunate enemies. But, to judge them fairly, we must not do it by the lights of our own age. We must carry ourselves back to theirs, and take the point of view afforded by the civilization of their time.”

The second plea in extenuation was broader—and more dubious; it was also more Victorian. It was this: that the cruelty and bloodshed which accompanied the destruction of the two great civilizations of the New World were, in a sense, the price of progress. The Aztecs and the Incas were, after all, backward and even barbarous peoples. It is therefore pure sentimentalism for us to “regret the fall of an empire which did so little to promote the happiness of its subjects or the real interests of humanity.” The Aztecs, particularly, “were emphatically a fierce and brutal race, little calculated, in their best aspects, to excite our sympathy and regard. Their civilization … was … a generous graft on a vicious stock, and could have brought no fruit to perfection.” We cannot choose the instruments or the vessels of the spread of civilization and of Christianity; these are often blunt and warped. But, over the generations and the centuries we can see that it is with imperfect means that progress works to eliminate the weak and the backward and to make room for the strong and the progressive. May we not, therefore, conclude that “it was beneficently ordered by Providence that the land [of the Mexicans] should be delivered over to another race who would rescue it from the brutish superstitions that daily extended wider and wider”?

The Reverend Theodore Parker—known in his day as “the Great American Preacher”—was both a scholar and a moral philosopher. As a scholar he was prepared to be indulgent toward Mr. Prescott’s histories, for, superficial as they were, they had their points. But as a moralist he had no patience with Prescott’s apologies, evasions, and extenuations. In two long essays in the Massachusetts Quarterly Review —which he edited—Mr. Parker raked Mr. Prescott fore and aft for what he regarded as moral cowardice. At every point in his narrative the historian of the conquest of Mexico and of Peru had excused, palliated, and condoned until, in the end, one was forced to conclude that his moral sensibilities were as calloused as his judgment was warped. Who was Mr. Prescott that he should suspend judgment over the hideous cruelties and iniquities of the conquistadors? Mr. Prescott shows little horror at these [Spanish] cruelties, little sense of their injustice; nay, he seems to seek to mitigate the natural indignation which a man feels at such tyranny of the strong over the weak. We confess our astonishment that an historian who thinks the desire of converting the heathen was the paramount motive in the breast of Cortés, has no more censure to bestow on such wanton cruelties, so frequently perpetrated as they were.