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William Hickling Prescott



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he Prescotts are an ancient family as antiquity

is reckoned in the United States. The first Anglo-American of that name, John Prescott, an old Cromwellian soldier, took up residence in this country about 1640, and after living awhile at Watertown, Massachusetts, made a permanent home for himself at Lancaster, then a frontier settlement. When thieving Indians plundered him, it is said that he used to put on helmet, gorget, and cuirass, and start in pursuit. Being a powerful man and stern of countenance, his terrific appearance in his armor had a salutary effect on the

red men.

Jonas Prescott, a son of the old warrior, settled at Groton, Massachusetts, and there the family history centres for more than a hundred years.

George Ticknor: Life of William Hickling Prescott, 1864. Rollo Ogden: William Hickling Prescott, • American Men

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of Letters,' 1904.

H. T. Peck: William Hickling Prescott, English Men

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of Letters,' 1905.

They were a vigorous race, useful and conspicuous in the military and civil affairs of the colony.

William Hickling Prescott, the historian, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1796. His father, Judge William Prescott, was a man of eminent abilities, esteemed for his great legal acquirements and beloved for his personal worth. His mother, Catharine Hickling, a daughter of Thomas Hickling of Boston, was distinguished for energy and benevolence, as well as for a certain gayety of temperament, a trait which she transmitted to her famous son. The grandfather of the historian was Colonel William Prescott, founder of the town of Pepperell, who, on the night of June 16, 1775, with his force of a thousand men, threw up a redoubt on Bunker (Breed's) Hill, and on the following day defended it until defence was no longer possible.

Prescott was drilled in the classics by one of old Parr's pupils, the Reverend Doctor John Gardiner, rector of Trinity Church, Boston. He was an insatiable reader of books; but it were idle to assume that his interest in Spanish history and literature took its first impulse, as has been asserted, from the reading of Southey's translation of Amadis of Gaul.

He entered Harvard College in the Sophomore year and was graduated in 1814. A misfortune befell him early in his course which changed his whole life and made enormous demands on his


philosophy and courage. In one of the frolics attending the breaking up of commons, when small missiles were flying about the room, Prescott was struck full in the left eye with a hard crust of bread. The sight was instantly destroyed, and he lived for years in apprehension of what, fortunately, never overtook him, total blindness.

He began the study of law, but illness and consequent weakening of the power of vision put an end to it. In search of health and diversion he went abroad. After spending some months in the Azores, in the family of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Hickling, then United States consul at St. Michael's, he visited Italy, France, and England. In London he consulted eminent oculists, who were able, however, to give him but little encouragement.

Shortly after his return home he married Miss Susan Amory of Boston, whose maternal grandfather, Captain Linzee, was in command of a British sloop of war at the outbreak of the Revolution, and had cannonaded the redoubt on Bunker Hill. In 1821 Prescott planned a course of literary study. Beginning oddly enough with grammars and rhetorics, he followed this preliminary reading with a wide survey first of English literature, then of French and Italian. German he tried and gave up. With his enfeebled sight he could do but little of the actual reading for himself; the bulk of it had to be done for him.

Prescott's literary life was peculiar in that he prepared himself to become a man of letters with no definite conception of what he would write about. He was not, like the literary heroes of whom we read, so possessed of his subject from boyhood that all the ancient neighbors distinctly recall early evidences of his predilection. His first impulse towards the studies in which he won renown came from George Ticknor. To help Prescott pass away his time Ticknor read to his friend the lectures he had been giving to advanced classes at Harvard, lectures which formed the basis of his History of Spanish Literature. This was in 1824. Prescott became enthusiastic over the study of the Spanish language and history. A year later he was thinking what brilliant passages might be written on the Inquisition, the Conquest of Granada, and the exploits of the Great Captain. After balancing Italian and Spanish subjects against each other, he decided, not without misgivings, on a history of Ferdinand and Isabella, and early in 1826 wrote to Alexander H. Everett, United States minister at Madrid, asking his help in collecting materials.

Three and a half years of study preceded the writing of the first chapter; ten and a half years in all were required to make the book. Its enthusiastic reception from scholars and public alike led Prescott to take up cognate subjects. The list of his writings is brief, but, taking into account the difficulties involved, one may say without exaggeration that Prescott's historical works represent a labor little short of titanic.

The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic appeared in 1837. It was followed by The Conquest of Mexico, 1843; Critical and Historical Essays, 1845 (consisting chiefly of papers reprinted from the 'North American Re'view'); The Conquest of Peru, 1847; The History of Philip the Second, 1855 (left unfinished at the author's death). To this list of important works may be added a brief continuation of Robertson's Charles the Fifth, and a Memoir of Abbott Lawrence.

Prescott's life was without marked external incident. His surroundings were ideal. Having inherited a fortune, he could give himself to toilsome literary undertakings with no care for the financial result. He took satisfaction in the thought of having refuted Johnson's dictum that no man could write history unless he had good eyes.

Early in 1858 Prescott was stricken with apoplexy, but so far recovered as to be able to resume work on the History of Philip the Second. A second attack (January 27, 1859) ended in his death.


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