The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Prescott, Oliver
PRESCOTT. I. Oliver, an American patriot, born at Groton, Mass., April 27, 1731, died there, Nov. 17, 1804. He graduated at Harvard college in 1750, practised medicine, was successively major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel in the militia, and in 1776 was appointed a brigadier general of the militia for the county of Middlesex, and became a member of the board of war. In 1777 he was elected a member of the supreme executive council of the state. In 1778 he was created third major general of militia throughout the commonwealth, and in 1781 second, but soon after resigned. In this year he received from the government a commission “to cause to be apprehended and committed to jail any person whom you shall deem the safety of the commonwealth requires to be restrained of his personal liberty, or whose enlargement within the commonwealth is dangerous thereto.” In 1779 he was made judge of probate for the county of Middlesex, and held that post until his death. He was very influential in suppressing Shays's rebellion. II. William, an American patriot, brother of the preceding, born at Groton, Mass., Feb. 20, 1726, died at Pepperell, Mass., Oct. 13, 1795. He inherited a large estate. In 1755 he served successively as lieutenant and captain in the provincial army under Winslow during the expedition against Nova Scotia; and after the war he retired to his estate in Pepperell. On receiving the news of the battle of Lexington, he assembled a regiment of minutemen of which he was colonel, and marched to Cambridge. When the committee of safety decided to occupy Bunker hill, Prescott was selected for this perilous service, and on the evening of June 16 marched to Charlestown with a brigade of 1,000 men, and threw up the intrenchments behind which under his command the Americans met the British on the following day. It is the contemporary record, says Bancroft, that during the battle “no one appeared to have any command but Col. Prescott,” and that “his bravery could never be enough acknowledged and applauded.” He was among the last to quit the field, and immediately offered to retake the position if the commander-in-chief would give him three regiments. He served in the army for two years longer, and was present as a volunteer at the battle of Saratoga in 1777. After this battle he returned home, and subsequently sat in the legislature of Massachusetts for several years. III. William, an American lawyer, only child of the preceding, born at Pepperell, Aug. 19, 1762, died in Boston, Dec. 8, 1844. He graduated at Harvard college in 1783, studied law at Beverly, and practised there from 1787 to 1789, when he removed to Salem, which town he represented for several years in the legislature, and was subsequently elected by the federal party a state senator. In 1808 he removed to Boston, and in 1809 and for several years afterward was a member of the governor's council. In 1814 he was a delegate to the Hartford convention, and in 1818 was appointed a judge of the court of common pleas, which office he resigned at the end of a year. He was a delegate to the constitutional convention of Massachusetts, his last public office. He received the degree of LL. D. from Harvard college in 1824. IV. William Hickling, an American historian, son of the preceding, born in Salem, Mass., May 4, 1796, died in Boston, Jan. 28, 1859. His mother was the daughter of Thomas Hickling, for many years United States consul at the Azores. At the age of 12 he removed with his family to Boston; and he graduated at Harvard college in 1814. In the last year of his student life a classmate playfully threw at him a crust of bread, which struck one of his eyes, inflicting an injury which deprived the eye of sight except so much as sufficed to distinguish light from darkness. Excessive use of the other eye brought on a rheumatic inflammation, which deprived him entirely of sight for some weeks, and left the eye too irritable to be employed in reading for several years. Subsequently for some years he was enabled to use it for many hours of the day, but eventually it again became so weak that during the latter half of his life Mr. Prescott could only read for a few moments at a time, and could scarcely see to write at all. Soon after leaving college he travelled in England, France, and Italy, and resided for several months at Rome and Naples. On his return to Boston after two years' absence, he married and settled for life in his father's family. In 1819 he determined to devote the next ten years to the study of ancient and modern literatures, and to give the succeeding ten to the composition of a history. He accordingly applied himself to the study of French and Italian literature, and at one time meditated writing a life of Molière, for which he made an extensive collection of materials. This project, and another for the history of Italian literature, he reluctantly abandoned because of the great amount of reading which they involved. Of his studies in this direction the chief fruits were given to the public in a series of essays in the “North American Review” on “Molière,” “Italian Narrative Poetry,” and “Poetry and Romance of the Italians,” which, with others on kindred topics, were printed in a volume of “Miscellanies” (London and Boston, 1845). About 1825 Mr. Prescott began to study Spanish literature and history, and selected as the subject of his first work the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. He made at great expense a collection of materials for the illustration of the period in question, including various contemporary manuscripts, covering the whole ground of the narrative, none of which had been printed, and some of which were little known to Spanish scholars. But when his materials were collected, his eyes, which for a time had been well enough to enable him to read a few hours each day, became worse than ever. He obtained the assistance of a reader, who knew no language but English. “I taught him to pronounce the Castilian in a manner suited, I suspect, much more to my ear than to that of a Spaniard; and we began our wearisome journey through Mariana's noble history. I cannot even now call to mind without a smile the tedious hours in which, seated under some old trees in my country residence, we pursued our slow and melancholy way over pages which afforded no glimmering of light to him, and from which the light came dimly struggling to me through a half intelligible vocabulary. But in a few weeks the light became stronger, and I was cheered by the consciousness of my own improvement; and when we had toiled our way through seven quartos I found I could understand the book when read about two thirds as fast as ordinary English.” At a later period Mr. Prescott obtained the services of a reader acquainted with Spanish and other languages of continental Europe. After more than ten years of labor the “History of Ferdinand and Isabella” was ready for the press. A few copies were privately printed and shown to Mr. Sparks, Mr. Ticknor, and other friends, whose cordial approbation at length encouraged the diffident author to publish the work. It appeared in Boston and London in 1837, in 3 vols. 8vo, was immediately received with great favor, and was soon translated into German, French, and Spanish; and the royal academy of history at Madrid elected the author a corresponding member. Six years of labor were next devoted to the “History of the Conquest of Mexico” (3 vols. 8vo, London and New York, 1843), and four years to the “Conquest of Peru” (2 vols. 8vo, 1847). These works were received with the highest favor in all parts of the civilized world. Prescott was elected a member of nearly all the principal literary bodies in Europe, and in 1845 was made a corresponding member of the institute of France. He received the degree of LL. D. from Columbia college in 1840, and from Harvard in 1843, and that of D. C. L. from Oxford university in 1850. In 1850 he made a short visit to Europe, passing a few months in England, Scotland, and Belgium. After his return he applied himself to the composition of a history of the reign of Philip II., for which he had made an extensive collection. The first two volumes appeared at Boston in 1855, and the third in 1858. The entire history was intended to comprise six volumes, but was never finished. On Feb. 4, 1858, he experienced a slight shock of paralysis, from the effects of which he soon recovered and resumed his literary pursuits. Eleven months afterward, while at work with his secretary in his study, he was struck speechless by a second attack, and died about an hour afterward. Besides his histories, Mr. Prescott wrote brief memoirs of his friends John Pickering and Abbott Lawrence, and supplied to a Boston edition of Robertson's “History of Charles V.” a sequel relating the true circumstances of the emperor's retirement and death. — Mr. Prescott was tall and slender, with a fresh and florid complexion, and lively, graceful manners. In his habits he was singularly methodical, and regulated his daily life by an exact division of time. He rose early, and clothed himself according to the weather as indicated by the thermometer, putting on so many pounds of clothing more or less, his garments being all marked with their weight in pounds and ounces. He walked five miles each day in the open air, or, if the weather was stormy, in the house, in the latter case putting on his hat, boots, and gloves, and taking his cane as if out of doors. He always walked alone, if he could without discourtesy avoid having a companion, because while walking he occupied his thoughts in composition. To his literary labors he gave five hours daily, divided into three nearly equal portions of time, and for two hours a day listened to novel reading, which he thought stimulated his imagination and enhanced the animation of his style. His accounts of daily expenditures were kept with the greatest exactness, and one tenth of his income was always devoted to charity. From the middle of November to the middle of June he resided in Boston, at No. 55 Beacon street, where he had accumulated one of the finest private libraries in America, especially rich in Italian and Spanish books. The summer was passed at Nahant, where he had a cottage, and the autumn at Pepperell. In the last years of his life he abandoned Nahant and established his summer residence in the neighboring town of Swampscott. He carried his books with him to his seaside and rural residences, and wrote there with his usual diligence. He used a writing instrument made for the blind, consisting of a frame of the size of a sheet of quarto letter paper traversed by as many wires as there were to be lines on the page, and with a sheet of carbonated paper, such as is used for getting duplicates, fastened to the reverse side. With an ivory or agate stylus he traced his characters between the wires on the carbonated sheet, making indelible marks on the white page below. He wrote with great rapidity, in a hand so illegible that none could read it but himself and his secretary. The latter copied the manuscript as fast as written in a large and legible hand, on paper so ruled that there was twice the usual space between the lines to afford room for interlineation. When the chapter was finished, it was read to him several times, carefully revised, and again copied before being sent to the printer. He took comparatively little pains with his style, but was unwearied in his efforts to ascertain the truth of history. See “Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Memory of W. H. Prescott” (Boston, 1859), and “Life of W. H. Prescott,” by George Ticknor (Boston, 1864). A new and revised edition of his works, edited by his last secretary, John Foster Kirk, has been published (15 vols., Philadelphia, 1874-'5).