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[275]

To William H. Prescott.

Boston, Oct. 27, 1848.
my dear Prescott,—I hardly know how to express on paper the delight and instruction with which I have read your work.1 Since I first devoured the Waverley novels, I have read nothing by which I have been so entirely entraine;,—sitting at my desk for hours; then trimming my lamp, and still sitting on; and finally, with the book under my arm, adjourning home, where I read on till after midnight. The ‘Introduction’ was interesting and instructive,—exciting thought and requiring attention, at the same time that it was clear and copious. Perhaps this will afford to enlightened minds a field of interest of a higher character than the other portions of the work; but these cannot fail to charm everybody. You have succeeded perfectly in picturing those magical successes by which Cortez overthrew the Aztec Empire. It is in your pages that I first felt the beauty and fitness of an epithet of Gray in that stanza of the ‘Progress of Poesy,’ which Dugald Stewart thought the finest in the English language,— ‘Their feather-cinctured chiefs and dusky loves.’

I began the work, hating Cortez as he hated idols, and longing to see him overthrown. But you have led me on gently to your rather favorable estimate of his character. On the narrative, as presented by you, I do not see any occasion to differ from your appreciation of his acts. His courage, address, and resources seem almost unparalleled in history,—greater than those of Alexander; his bigotry and religious intolerance, with cruelty in their train, were those of the Crusader,—of the Church of Rome at that period, of the laws of all Christian nations down to a much later period, of Lord Coke himself. The old common law writ, de haeretico comburendo, was only formally taken away in the reign of Charles II. I have not your book by me; but my impression is that there was one remark in extenuation of Cortez which did not seem carefully expressed.

Since I saw you, I have refreshed my recollection of those three pictures, by Hume, Gibbon, and Mackintosh, of the capture of Jerusalem, the slaughter, and the homage afterwards to the Holy Sepulchre,—showing the blended devotion and ferocity of the conquerors on this consummation of the war. Cortez is not worse than Godfrey de Bouillon,—‘Pious Godfrey,’ in the verse of Tasso, almost sainted by the Church,—to whom grateful Belgium, in our day, is erecting a national monument. I think Gibbon's philosophical reflections unsound, though his picture is martial and stirring. Hume is exquisite and graceful; but Mackintosh has the higher tone of philosophy and superior correctness of thought,—though these cannot make one forget the inferiority of style in which they are expressed But I wander. Let me thank you, dear Prescott, most heartily for this new and beautiful contribution to our literature; and believe that there are few who will enjoy your fame more than I shall.

Ever affectionately yours,


1 The ‘Conquest of Mexico,’ which was published a few days later.

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