Prescott, William Hickling (1796–1859)

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Prescott, William Hickling (1796–1859)

William Hickling Prescott (b. 14 May 1796; d. 28 January 1859), American historian and man of letters. William Hickling Prescott was born in Salem, Massachusetts, into a prosperous, old-line family. Blinded in the left eye while a student at Harvard, soon after graduation he also suffered serious problems in his right eye that turned him from the study of law to letters. Forced to depend on a special writing case that enabled him to write without seeing, Prescott relied upon a secretary to turn his scrawls into readable form.

Prescott learned several European languages, including Spanish, and in the mid-1820s he decided to write the three-volume History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic (1837). This narrative history, based upon numerous books and manuscripts received from Spain and read to him by his secretary, won Prescott considerable fame and long remained the standard work on the Catholic kings.

His early acclaim and several well-placed friends bought Prescott election to the Royal Academy of History in Madrid and access, through copyists, to numerous documentary collections. From these and published sources, Prescott wrote his finest works, A History of the Conquest of Mexico (3 vols., 1843) and A History of the Conquest of Peru (2 vols., 1847).

Although the histories of both conquests begin with discussions of the native civilizations that preceded the arrival of the Spaniards, Prescott's true interest lay in the conquests themselves. His histories present flowing narratives of epic events based on a rigorous devotion to facts. While they have been supplemented by subsequent economic, political, social, and intellectual studies, the histories remain classics unsurpassed in their ability to capture the imagination and engage the reader.

See alsoFerdinand II of Aragon; Isabella I of Castile; Spanish Empire.


Robin A. Humphreys, "William Hickling Prescott: The Man and the Historian," Hispanic American Historical Review 39, no. 1 (1959): 1-19.

C. Harvey Gardiner, William Hickling Prescott: A Biography (1969).

Additional Bibliography

Costeloe, Michael P. "Prescott's 'History of the Conquest' and Calderón de la Barca's 'Life in Mexico': Mexican Reaction, 1843–1844." The Americas 47:3 (January 1991): 337-348.

Eipper, John E. "The Canonizer De-Canonized: The Case of William H. Prescott." Hispania 68:200 (September 2000): 416-427.

Krauze, Enrique. "Mister Prescott y Lord Thomas." Vuelta 18:216 (November 1994): 25-31.

                                   Mark A. Burkholder

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Prescott, William Hickling (1796–1859)

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