Maggi Smith-DaltonIn March 1796, a general named Napoleon Bonaparte assumed command of the French army in Italy. His campaign against Austrian and Sardinian forces there would fuel his rise during this era of revolution–a path that would lead him to his destiny as “First Consul" of France and, later, its Emperor.
That spring, young William Barclay Foster journeyed to Pittsburgh, a town slowly transitioning from raw frontier town to industrialized city. Initially successful, he married Eliza Tomlinson, whose wealthy progenitors had owned a plantation in Maryland. Their marriage would produce musically talented children, first a daughter, Charlotte; later, a boy, Stephen Collins.
By the end of that year, the United States would elect a new president as a result of its first contested election, and admit its 16th state (Tennessee). On September 19, 1796, first president George Washington issued his Farewell Address to the nation.
In Salem, Mass., then one of the largest US cities (and reportedly, per capita, the richest) a happy couple welcomed a son on May 4, 1796, naming him William Hickling Prescott (1796 - 1859).
William was born into a cosmopolitan, genteel milieu. The Prescotts' beautiful house, (which stood on the site of the present-day Plummer Hall), reflected the success of his father, respected judge and philanthropist William Prescott (1762-1844). His law practice laid the foundations of the fortune from which William would benefit. Prescott's paternal grandfather, Col. William Prescott (1726-1795) was revered as a hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Catherine Greene Hickling Prescott (1767-1852), William's mother, was the daughter of the U.S. Vice Consul in the Azores, merchant Thomas Hickling (1743-1834).
William H. Prescott achieved worldwide fame as the first United States historian to focus serious scholarly attention on Spanish and Spanish-American history. He was a prolific writer, despite physical handicaps which, famously, included progressive near-blindness.
Some of Prescott's books include History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic (3 volumes) (1838); History of the Conquest of Mexico (3 volumes) (1843); Biographical and Critical Miscellanies (1845) revised as Critical and Historical Essays in 1850; History of the Conquest of Peru (3 volumes) (1847); Memoir of Hon. John Pickering, LL.D. (1848); History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain (3 volumes) (1855 and 1858).
Prescott's importance cannot be underestimated historiographically. As scholar John E. Eipper wrote in a recent article in the journal Hispania, "No Hispanist was more instrumental in defining the field of Latin American Colonial Studies than William H. Prescott…. His histories, most notably the History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), were bestselling works which informed the U.S. public about Latin American antiquity during the "Manifest Destiny" period of mid-century."
Prescott's style of narrative history belongs to the era before the professionalization of historical writing, and he is a prime example of the "patrician-historian," or "gentlemen-amateur," who, free from academic requirements or earning a living as professional historians, wrote works which, though based on scholarship and research, were primarily literary in nature.
Such works employed florid and imaginative language, and were often subjective or polemical in tone. Though this approach is outdated today, such works were nevertheless important in the development of a historical consciousness in the young United States.
Other historians usually placed in this historiographical category include Worcester's George Bancroft (1800-1891), as well as Boston's Francis Parkman (1823–1893), and John Lothrop Motley (1814–1877).
Prescott's childhood in Salem, according to his friend and biographer, fellow Hispanist George Ticknor (1791-1871) was happy, and he enjoyed a lifelong close relationship with his parents.
In Ticknor's hagiographic biography of Prescott (1864), his early education was said to be "naturally in the hands of his affectionate and active mother…" but he was soon sent, "like most of the persons who constituted the society in Salem to which his family belonged … to a school for the very young, kept by Miss Mehitable Higginson, a true gentlewoman, descended from the venerable Francis Higginson, who emigrated to Salem in 1629, when there were only seven houses on the spot now covered by the whole city…. "
In 1803, "at New-Year," he was sent to be educated by Jacob Newman Knapp, "long known in Salem as 'Master Knapp.'" William was "less than seven years old." Here his education continued until 1808, when the Prescott family moved to Boston.
According to Ticknor, Prescott was "a bright, merry boy, with an inquisitive mind, quick perceptions, and a ready, retentive memory…. In the latter part of his life he used to say, that he recollected no period of his childhood when he did not love books; adding, that often, when he was a very little boy, he was … excited by stories appealing strongly to his imagination…."
Apparently, however, due to being indulged by parents and other adults, he had a habit of speaking his mind "with a boldness that was sometimes rude … [which] made him more confident in the expression of his opinions and feelings than was agreeable." Yet, his biographer adds, this was the root of his "attractive simplicity and openness" which characterized Prescott's personality in later life.
Next week: A Tragic Accident & The Lure of Spain
Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society and author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010). She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have recorded two new albums of 19th-century music for 2011. Reach her at http://singingstring.org. For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to http://salemhistorysociety.org.