William H. Prescott

American historian and hispanist

William Hickling Prescott (May 4, 1796 – January 29, 1859) was an American historian who was interested in Spain and the Spanish Empire. He is known as one of the first great American historians. Prescott was made almost blind after a boy threw a piece of bread at his eye when he was sixteen. This meant that he could not work in a normal job.

William Hickling Prescott
A black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged man wearing formal mid-19th century clothing facing left.
Prescott c. 1850–1859
Born(1796-05-04)May 4, 1796
DiedJanuary 28, 1859(1859-01-28) (aged 62)
Cause of deathStroke
Spouse(s)Susan Amory
WH Prescott Signature.svg

Prescott's grandfather was William Prescott, a soldier who fought for the United States in the American Revolutionary War. Prescott grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, which is a city on the east coast of the United States. When Prescott was 15, he went to Harvard University. After he got his degree, he studied many different topics, before deciding that he was interested in the history of Spain. He wrote many books about Spanish history, which were very popular. His work had a significant impact on the study of the history of Spain.

Early lifeEdit

William H. Prescott was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1796. He was the oldest of seven children, but four of his brothers and sisters died at a young age.[2] His parents were William Prescott, Jr., a lawyer, and his wife, Catherine Greene Hickling. His grandfather William Prescott served as a colonel during the American Revolutionary War.[3]

Prescott first went to school when he was seven.[4] The family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1808. Prescott went to Harvard University in 1811, at the age of 15.[5] He was good at Latin and Greek, but found mathematics difficult.[6][7][8] He graduated from Harvard in 1814.

After he had graduated, Prescott traveled to the island of São Miguel in the Azores, where his grandfather and Portuguese grandmother lived.[9] After staying there two weeks, he went to London, where he stayed with the famous surgeon Astley Cooper and the eye-expert William Adams.[10] Prescott found it difficult to write because his eyesight was so poor, so Adams gave him a device called a noctograph to help him.

He visited Hampton Court Palace with John Quincy Adams, who was a diplomat in London. Adams later became President of the United States.[11] In 1816, Prescott travelled in France and Italy. He met an American academic, George Ticknor in Paris. Ticknor became a very good friend of Prescott. Prescott returned to America in December 1816. He spent the next four years studying Italian and Spanish literature. He also married Susan Amory, the daughter of Thomas Coffin Amory and Hannah Rowe Linzee, on May 4, 1820.[12]


In the 1820s, Prescott wrote two essays for the North American Review, an American academic journal. Both were about Italian poetry.[13] However, Prescott became interested in the history of Spain due to his friend George Ticknor, who had become professor of Spanish studies at Harvard University.[14] Prescott decided that he wanted to write a book about Ferdinand and Isabella, who were King and Queen of Spain in the early 1500s, in January 1826.[15] After gathering source material, Prescott started writing the History of Ferdinand and Isabella in October 1829.[16] He had finished it by July 1836.[17] It was published on Christmas Day, 1837 by the American Stationary Company, which was based in Boston, with a print run of 500 copies.[18] Prescott dedicated the book to his father. The book sold very well, and was published in London in 1838.[19][20] Prescott later made a shortened version of the work.[21] In recognition of this work, he was awarded three honorary doctorates, by Columbia University, College of William and Mary and South Carolina College.[22]

Prescott wrote three other books on the Spanish Empire. The first, The History of the Conquest of Mexico, was written between 1838 and 1842 and published in 1843.[23] It is thought to be one of the most important books written on ancient Mesoamerica. It was so popular at the time that John Y. Mason, the United States Secretary of the Navy had a copy placed in the library of every fighting ship.[24] Today, it is still the best known and most popular work by Prescott. The Conquest of Mexico was followed by the Conquest of Peru, which was written between 1843 and 1847, and published in March 1847. It was similarly successful.[25] Prescott's last book, the History of the Reign of Phillip II was never finished and is not thought to be of the same quality as his other works. Prescott started work on it in 1842, but stopped in 1858 after suffering a stroke.[26]


  1. Gardiner, p. 352
  2. Sullivan, 1972, p. 154
  3. Peck, p. 13
  4. Ticknor, 1864, p. 3, Peck p. 16
  5. Sullivan, 1972, p. 156, Peck p. 22
  6. Peck, p. 33
  7. Ticknor, 1864, p. 16
  8. Gardiner, p. 20
  9. Peck, p. 36
  10. Peck, p. 37
  11. Ticknor, 1864, p. 44
  12. Peck, p. 43
  13. Rossi, Joseph The Italian Poems of Thomas James Mathias, 1943, printed in Modern Language Quarterly, p. 331
  14. Peck, p. 48
  15. Ticknor, 1864, p. 76
  16. Ticknor, 1864, p. 94
  17. Griswold, 1847, p. 372
  18. Gardiner, p. 138
  19. Ticknor, 1864, p. 106
  20. Gardiner, p. 141
  21. Ticknor, 1864, p. 197
  22. Gardiner, p. 181
  23. Gardiner, p. 197
  24. Gardiner, p. 249
  25. Ticknor, 1864, p. 266
  26. Ticknor, 1864, p. 424
Commager, Henry Steele (May 1930). "William Hickling Prescott", in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. London: Edwin Seligman.
Eipper, John E. (September 2000). "The Canonizer De-Canonized: The Case of William H. Prescott" (reproduced online through JSTOR, original paper). Hispania. American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. 83 (3): 416–427. doi:10.2307/346006. JSTOR 346006. Retrieved 2010-06-16.
Gardiner, C. Harvey (1969). William Hickling Prescott. Austin, Texas: Texas University Press. ISBN 9780292700055.
Griswold, Rufus Wilmot (1847). The prose writers of America : with a survey of the intellectual history, condition, and prospects of the country. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Carey and Hart.
Herring, H. J. and James B. Longacre (1853). The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Hart and Rice.
Lockwood, Frank C. (1929). The life of Edward E. Ayer. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg. OCLC 1251430.
Peck, Harry Thurston (2009). William Hickling Prescott. LLC: BiblioBazaar. ISBN 978-1103392759.
Sullivan, Wilson (1972). New England Men of Letters. New York: Atheneum. ISBN 978-0027886801.
Ticknor, George (1864). Life of William Hickling Prescott. Boston, MA: Ticknor and Fields.
Further reading
Johnson, Rossiter; Brown, John Howard (1904). The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. Boston, Massachusetts: Boston Biographical Society.
Palmer, Joseph (1864). Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College, 1851–1852 to 1862–1863. Boston, MA: J. Wilson and Son. OCLC 1344448.
Papers discussing the comparative merits of Prescott's and Wilson's histories, pro. and con.: As laid before the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston: [s.n.]. 1861. OCLC 12315930.
Wilson, Robert Anderson (1859). A New History of the Conquest of Mexico: In which Las Casas' denunciations of the popular historians of that war are fully vindicated. Philadelphia, PA: James Challen & Son. OCLC 9642461.
Winsor, Justin (2006) [1866]. "Cortés and his Companions: Critical essay on the documentary sources of Mexican history". Narrative and Critical History of America, Vol. 2. Elibron Classics series (unabridged facsimile of edn. published 1866 [Boston:Houghton, Mifflin & Co.] ed.). Boston, MA: Adamant Media Corporation. pp. 397–430. ISBN 0-543-98914-3. OCLC 3523208.