History of the Conquest of Mexico

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William H. Prescott's (1796–1859) History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) is an often cited (though seldom read) example of the work of Romantic historians in America, a group of distinguished men of letters that includes George Bancroft (1800–1891), John Lothrop Motley (1814–1877), and Francis Parkman (1823–1893). These authors brought new rigor and flair to American historical writing, and their work complemented the projects of novelists and poets of their day. But to call Prescott an American Romantic historian obscures the contexts and purposes of his bravura rendition of Hernán Cortés's (1485–1547) conquest of Mexico. Beneath the terms "Romantic" and "American" lie a complex range of meanings.


Prescott presents the conquest of Mexico between 1519 and 1521 as a drama in five acts, or books: "The subversion of a great empire by a handful of adventurers, taken with all its strange and picturesque accompaniments, has the air of romance rather than of sober history." However, Prescott's aim is not to romanticize a historical subject but to treat a Romantic subject rigorously as history: "I have conscientiously endeavoured to distinguish fact from fiction, and to establish the narrative on as broad a basis as possible of contemporary evidence" (1:ix–x). Prescott parted company with novelists like Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, who argued that details might be altered or scenes invented so long as the writer represented the true spirit of the past. Not that Prescott avoided the conventions of Romantic fiction—he was fond of portraying dramatic action against spectacular backdrops—but he always required documentary evidence to substantiate his scenic displays. The famous Noche Triste (Melancholy Night) during which Cortés's forces were nearly destroyed, really did take place on a dark and stormy night.

However, The History of the Conquest of Mexico comes to us in seven books, not five. Prescott framed the drama with two other very different books—the first, a "philosophical" description of Aztec society before Spanish conquest; the last, an account of Cortés's career after his triumph in Mexico. The disquisition on the Aztecs followed in the tradition of German Romantic scholarship pioneered by J. G. von Herder, who argued that the innate characteristics of racially defined nations are the chief forces in historical development and who saw the purpose of history as the evolution of nation-states in which the geniuses of particular peoples found their embodiment. In an earlier work, The Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella (1837), Prescott had provided such an analysis of the Spanish nation. The Conquest of Mexico therefore begins with a comparable account of Aztec society that allows his subsequent narrative to depict a clash between two conflicting peoples. But Prescott takes care to delineate the internal tensions of Aztec civilization. Montezuma appears as the leader of a conglomeration of smaller kingdoms, hedged in by other polities such as Tlascala and Cholula that resist Aztec authority and by other Nahua peoples resentful of Aztec demands for sacrificial victims. Prescott describes the rise of Aztec religious practices, including human sacrifice and cannibalism, as recent innovations on earlier Olmec and Toltec civilizations. His use of Romantic ideas about historical development is thus neither monolithic nor simplistic, and he accords Aztec society the same level of complexity with which he had depicted Spain.

Prescott's account of Cortés's later career challenges another Romantic convention, the concept of the Representative Man. As developed by Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Representative Man was the natural outgrowth of Herder's Romantic nationalism: a heroic figure who embodies the qualities of a people. Cortés was an obvious candidate for such a role, and Prescott could have chosen to end his tale with his victory over Mexico. "Indeed, the history of the Conquest . . . is necessarily that of Cortés, who is . . . not merely the soul, but the body, of the enterprise" (3:352). Instead, Prescott's account of Cortés's later years complicates this image. Cortés leads a rigorous but inconclusive expedition to Honduras and

These three excerpts from Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico represent characteristic aspects of his work. The first two offer portraits of key individuals, Montezuma and Cortés. Montezuma is offered as a Romantic figure—the Aztec "Representative Man"—and also displays Prescott's use of orientalist images. The last two excerpts offer examples of Prescott's Romanticism—especially the latter, in which his use of settings and conventions of dramatic fiction writing are most obvious.

Prescott on Montezuma

In his younger days, he had tempered the fierce habits of the soldier with the milder profession of religion. In later life, he had withdrawn himself still more from the brutalizing occupations of war and his manners acquired a refinement tinctured, it may be added, with an effeminacy, unknown to his martial predecessors.

The condition of the empire, too, under his reign, was favorable to this change. The dismemberment of the Tezcucan kingdom, on the death of the great Nezahualpilli, had left the Aztec monarchy without a rival; and it soon spread its colossal arms over the furthest limits of Anahuac. The aspiring mind of Montezuma rose with the acquisition of wealth and power; and he displayed the consciousness of new importance by the assumption of unprecedented state. He affected a reserve unknown to his predecessors; withdrew his person from the vulgar eye, and fenced himself round with an elaborate and courtly etiquette. When he went abroad, it was in state, on some public occasion, usually to a great temple, to take part in the religious services; and as he passed along, he exacted from his people, as we have seen, the homage of an adulation worthy of an Oriental despot. His haughty demeanour touched the pride of his more potent vassals, particularly those who, at a distance, felt themselves nearly independent of his authority. His exactions, demanded by the profuse expenditure of his palace, scattered broad-cast the seeds of discontent; and, while the empire seemed towering in its most palmy and prosperous state, the canker had eaten deepest into its heart.

Prescott on Cortés

Before marching, the general spoke a few words of encouragement to his own men. He told them, they were now to embark, in earnest, on an enterprise which had been the great object of their desires; and that the blessed Saviour would carry them victorious through every battle with their enemies. "Indeed," he added, "this assurance must be our stay, for every other refuge is now cut off, but that afforded by the Providence of God, and your own stout hearts." He ended by comparing their achievements to those of the ancient Romans, "in phrases of honeyed eloquence far beyond any thing I can repeat," says the brave and simple-hearted chronicler who heard them [Bernal Diaz]. Cortés was, indeed, master of that eloquence which went to the soldiers' hearts. For their sympathies were his, and he shared in the romantic spirit of adventure which belonged to them. "We are ready to obey you," they cried as with one voice. "Our fortunes, for better or worse, are cast with yours." Taking leave, therefore, of their hospitable Indian friends, the little army, buoyant with high hopes and lofty plans of conquest, set forward on the march to Mexico.

Prescott on the Noche Triste (Melancholy Night), 1 July 1520

The night was cloudy, and a drizzling rain, which fell without intermission, added to the obscurity. The great square before the palace was deserted, as, indeed, it had been since the fall of Montezuma. Steadily, and as noiselessly as possible, the Spaniards held their way along the great street of Tlacopan, which so lately had resounded to the tumult of battle. All was now hushed in silence; and they were only reminded of the past by the occasional presence of some solitary corpse, or a dark heap of the slain, which too plainly told where the strife had been hottest. As they passed along the lanes and alleys which opened into the great street, or looked down the canals, whose polished surface gleamed with a sort of ebon luster through the obscurity of night, they easily fancied that they discerned the shadowy forms of their foe lurking in ambush, and ready to spring on them. But it was only fancy; and the city slept undisturbed even by the prolonged echoes of the tramp of the horses, and hoarse rumbling of the artillery and baggage trains. At length, a lighter space beyond the dusky line of buildings showed the van of the army that it was emerging on the open causeway. They might well have congratulated themselves on having thus escaped the dangers of an assault in the city itself, and that a brief time would place them in comparative safety on the opposite shore.—But the Mexicans were not all asleep.

Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico, 1:130–131, 1:392–393, 2:361–362.

receives honors and riches from the Spanish government, but he also becomes victimized by the Byzantine politics of the Spanish court. These events complicate any easy identification of Cortés's career with Spain's historical destiny, and Prescott identifies Cortés's genius in his power over a wide variety of men: "differing in race, in language, and in interests, with scarcely anything in common among them . . . compelled to bend to the will of one man, . . . to breathe . . . one spirit, and to move on a common principle of action!" (3:355). If Cortés is representative, he embodies an almost accidental force that coheres in a peculiar moment rather than a unified people moving toward its Manifest Destiny.


Prescott is often grouped with Parkman, Motley, and other contemporaries as "American" historians, even though their subject was not the United States. Their works are deemed "American" because they imply that the United States represented the providential destiny of the Americas' settlement, for which the histories of imperial Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands were flawed forerunners. This generalization captures the underlying moralism in the works of the Romantic historians but obscures the complexity of their identity as American authors. It would be more accurate to think of Prescott as a Boston Federalist striving to come to terms with his city's place in the nation's conflicts. To be a Boston writer was to be at once provincial and cosmopolitan. As the son of a wealthy lawyer and delegate to the Hartford Convention that contemplated New England's secession from the United States in 1814, Prescott grew up in a tradition that did not assume that the United States fulfilled a providential design for human progress. The willingness of Jeffersonian administrations to sacrifice New England's commercial interests for the sake of territorial expansion made the American Republic seem inhospitable to those of Prescott's persuasion. At the same time, Boston's commercial interests made the city unusually cosmopolitan, a trait reflected by Prescott's contemporaries who sought to overcome their provincial upbringing by seeking education and travel in Europe. Boston's mercantile connections with Latin America encouraged Prescott and his peers to view this region as an independent partner in trade rather than a potential new area for U.S. colonization.

When Prescott published The Conquest of Mexico in 1843, the Texas question lay at the center of national politics. Prescott was bitterly opposed: "the craving for foreign acquisitions has ever been a most fatal symptom in the history of republics," and the annexation of Texas was "the most serious shock yet given to the stability of our glorious institutions" (Miscellanies, p. 305 n). The Conquest of Mexico can be read as an object lesson in the dangers of military adventurism—admonitory rather than celebratory American history. In a telling passage, Prescott begins book 2 with an overview of early-sixteenth-century Spain, borrowing phrases directly from the U.S. Constitution: "The [Spanish] nation at large could boast as great a degree of constitutional freedom as any other, at that time, in Christendom. Under a system of salutary laws and an equitable administration, domestic tranquility was secured, public credit established" (1:211–212). The parallels between Spain's emergence as a united monarchy out of "the numerous states, into which she had been so long divided" (1:211) and the nascent American republic are obvious, and the meaning of Cortés's conquest is clear—the short-term riches and power that military expansion brought to Spain were in the long run disastrous, not only for Mexico but for Spain as well. If Spain's salutary laws, domestic tranquility, and public credit could be ruined by the war spirit, so too could the American republic. In his review of Bancroft's History of the United States, written while he was completing Conquest of Mexico, Prescott claimed that "until the period has elapsed which shall have fairly tried the strength of our institutions, through peace and through war, . . . the time will not have come to write the history of the Union" (Miscellanies, p. 305). If the American continent was the stage on which the world's destiny would be played out, the United States was not necessarily the chosen vehicle to carry the designs of providence forward.


Then how did Prescott understand the historical contest that was unfolding in the New World? The answer that emerges throughout Prescott's prose epic is one that pits the West against the East, as the latest in a long sequence of conflicts going back to the ancient Greeks and Persians. In his account of Aztec civilization, Prescott often makes Orientalist comparisons in order to explain the existence of a complex New World society and rank it on a scale of human development. Egypt is the most common point of comparison, but others abound, as a few examples will demonstrate. On luxury, "The Spaniards might well have fancied themselves in the voluptuous precincts of an Eastern harem, instead of treading the halls of a wild barbaric chief in the Western World" (2:86). On religion, "[The Aztecs] invested their deities with attributes, savoring much more of the grotesque conceptions of the eastern nations in the Old World, than of the lighter fictions of Greek mythology" (1:56). On despotism, "The Tezcucan monarchs, like those of Asia, and ancient Egypt, had the control of immense masses of men, and would sometimes turn the whole population of a conquered city, including the women, into the public works" (1:180). Prescott argues in a lengthy appendix, "Origin of the Mexican Civilization," that the ancient peoples of Mexico must have had their roots in Asia as well (3:371–418).

Framing these comparisons is Prescott's conviction that there is a "wide difference" in the "inventive power" among nations: "Some nations seem to have no power beyond that of imitation," and the dividing line runs between East and West. "Such, for example, are the Chinese." By contrast, "Far from looking back, and forming itself slavishly on the past, it is characteristic of the European intellect to be ever on the advance" (1:131–132). In this sense, the conflict between the Spanish conquistadors and the armies of Montezuma "was, in short, the combat of the ancient Greeks and Persians over again" (1:445). For Prescott, Aztec soldiers were a force of nature, powerful through their sheer numbers, animal strength, and physical courage. But the Spaniards' victory "established the superiority of science and discipline over mere physical courage and numbers" (1:447). Embedded in these comparisons are standard Orientalist oppositions: Christian versus infidel, civility versus barbarism, science versus superstition, representative government versus despotism, masculine vigor versus feminine passivity, and an underlying racial distinction between white Europeans and colored Asiatics.

Prescott's use of racial stereotypes about Native Americans is contained within his Orientalism. A telling example comes in his description of Guatemozin, Montezuma's successor as Aztec emperor, who fought nobly against Cortés through the final siege of Tenochtitlan. Unlike Montezuma, who was marked by passivity and indecision—"an effeminacy, unknown to his martial predecessors," similar to "Alexander, after he was infected by the manners of the Persians" (2:130, 131 n)—Guatemozin is a "fierce young monarch" with a "haughty spirit" (3:191–193). Not surprisingly, Prescott suggests that Guatemozin's "complexion [was] fairer than those of his bronze-colored nation" (3:205). However, Prescott does not create a complete binary opposition between Spaniards and Aztecs. He offers a more subtle, if no less pernicious, suggestion that what undermines the success of Cortés is the degree to which Spain itself was orientalized by its former domination under Arab rule and its consequent tendency to embrace despotic forms of government and religion. If, under Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain had made progress toward constitutional liberties, this was ruined by their successor, Charles V, and by the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. The career of Cortés recapitulated this evolution. As a military leader Cortés always relied on the consent of his men. But after his final conquest of the Aztecs, his attempt to rebuild the Mexican empire brought out a despotic streak: "All within the immediate control of Cortés were pressed into the service. . . . Reconstruction went forward with a rapidity like that shown by an Asiatic despot, who concentrates the population of an empire on the erection of a favorite capital" (3:240). Prescott's comparison of the Spanish Inquisition with Aztec human sacrifice also advances the image of Spanish despotism. "Human sacrifice, however cruel, has nothing in it degrading to its victim. It may rather be said to ennoble him by devoting him to the gods. . . . The Inquisition, on the other hand, branded its victims with infamy in this world, and consigned them to everlasting perdition in the next" (1:84). Prescott's rendering of Spain and its empire as tainted by oriental qualities has been described by Richard L. Kagan as "Hispanism."

The Conquest of Mexico offers readers a Romantic chapter in the ongoing history of West versus East. Its orientalist stereotypes might suggest that Prescott saw this as a struggle between white Protestant Europeans and various ranks of lesser peoples. But the distinctions Prescott makes among races and nations are never absolute. Within any society—Spain, Mexico, or, for that matter, the United States—Prescott finds varying mixtures of the qualities he associates with progress or decline. Among the native peoples of Mexico, he praises the kingdom of Tezcuco as "the Athens of the Western World" (1:173) and describes "its superiority, in all the great features of civilization, over the rest of Anahuac" in words reminiscent of a proud Bostonian extolling his city's virtues over the crass materialism of New York: "The best histories, the best poems, the best code of laws, the purest dialect, were all allowed to be Tezcucan. The Aztecs rivaled their neighbors in splendor of living, . . . but this was the development of the material, rather than the intellectual principle" (1:204–205).

Ultimately The Conquest of Mexico casts doubt on the notion that the forces of progress are racial or national characteristics. For Prescott, virtuous actions and the development of wise institutions determine human progress, and these can be found, to some measure, in any society. Prescott argues that the Aztec empire could never have been conquered by Cortés and the conquistadors alone.

The Aztec monarchy fell by the hands of its own subjects, under the direction of European sagacity and science. Had it been united, it might have bidden defiance to the invaders. . . . Its fate may serve as a striking proof, that a government, which does not rest on the sympathies of its subjects, cannot long abide; that human institutions, when not connected with human prosperity and progress, must fall. (3:222–223)

If Prescott believed that the United States was a superior embodiment of progressive virtues, his provincial chauvinism ran still deeper, for he saw New England as the superior part of the United States. The Conquest of Mexico was also a cautionary tale to his fellow citizens, warning them against assuming too readily, as Cortés had done, that providence was on their side, and reminding them of the dangers faced by a government in which people differed violently over whether its institutions supported human prosperity and progress.

See alsoHistory; Orientalism; Romanticism


Primary Works

Prescott, William Hickling. "Bancroft's United States." In his Biographical and Critical Miscellanies, pp. 294–305. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1845.

Prescott, William Hickling. History of the Conquest of Mexico. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1843.

Prescott, William Hickling. History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic. 3 vols. Boston: American Stationers Company, 1837.

Secondary Works

Ernest, John. "Reading the Romantic Past: William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico." American Literary History 5, no. 2 (1993): 231–249.

Gardiner, C. Harvey. William Hickling Prescott: A Biography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969.

Kagan, Richard L., ed. Spain in America: The Origins ofHispanism in the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Levin, David. History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott,Motley, and Parkman. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959.

McWilliams, John P., Jr. The American Epic: Transforming a Genre, 1770–1860. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Ringe, Donald A. "The Function of Landscape in Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico." New England Quarterly 56, no. 4 (1983): 569–577.

Mark A. Peterson

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