Historical Charts and David Ramsay’s Narrative of Progress

A while back Slate’s “The Vault” blog ran a piece on John Sparks’s “Histomap” from 1931. I was recently reminded of that post as I came across a number of eighteenth-century historical charts during my dissertation research on eighteenth-century American history culture.[1] In the eighteenth century, there were conflicting understandings of historical time. Some understood time to be cyclical, as evidenced by the rise and (inevitable) fall of empires throughout history. Increasingly, however, historical time was coming to be understood as linear (in a mechanical, Newtonian sense). With the linear conception came the idea of historical time as being fundamentally progressive. This conception was further distinguished by those who understood it in terms of a narrative of social and political progress and those who understood it in millennialist terms, i.e., time progressing toward the end-of-days. These ideas shaped the ways in which one thought about history, and, in a time when historical distance was far more truncated than today, they had a profound effect on how one viewed their contemporary world. Historical understanding and, hence, historical writing were undergoing significant shifts in the eighteenth century. One of the by-products of these developments was the historical chart.

Historical charts were not invented in the eighteenth century.[2] Indeed, there had been historical or chronological charts produced in the seventeenth century in England, France, and Germany. But beginning in the eighteenth century, historical charts became a part of what one might call “the Enlightenment project” of collecting, ordering, presenting, and disseminating useful information. We can see the origins of Enlightenment-minded historical charts in Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg’s “time machine,” the Chronographie Universelle (1753), a 54-foot long scroll that came mounted on rollers in a wooden case (see pic above). In that same year in England, Thomas Jeffreys published A Chart of Universal History, which also included a great deal of information but lacked a coherent uniform scale.

Priestley’s A New Chart of History (1769) [click to enlarge]

In the early 1760s, Joseph Priestley, a British scientist and then-schoolteacher, set out to create his own historical charts according to “the principles of Sir Isaac Newton.” He wanted to create a chart that could organize history scientifically, at a uniform scale, and present that information graphically. A uniform scale would allow the viewers’ “imagination” to “form a just idea of the duration of empires from inspection only, without comparing the lengths of line with the dates laid down in the margin.” The way he did this was through the “invention” of the timeline. In his chart, “time [flowed] uniformly . . . [and] laterally, like a river, and not as falling in a perpendicular stream.” Priestley also understood the power of visual representation, arguing that his charts “impressed [information] upon the mind more forcibly by means of sensible images excited in the brain.” Finally, the chart was an economic pedagogical tool:

The capital use of any chart of this kind is, that it is a most excellent mechanical help to the knowledge of history, impressing the imagination indelibly with a just image of the rise, progress, extent, duration and contemporary state of all the considerable empires that have ever existed in the world. [. . .] And this is done with more exactness, and in much less time, than it could have been done by reading. I should not hesitate to say, that a more perfect knowledge of this kind of history may be gained by an hour’s inspection of this chart, than could be acquired by the reading of several weeks.[3]

Priestley’s A Chart of Biography (1765)

In 1765, Priestley published A Chart of Biography and followed that up in 1769 with A New Chart of History, which he dedicated to Benjamin Franklin. Even though both charts measured three feet in width and two feet in height, they were primarily chronological and uncrowded with text that did not serve the primary purpose of visually representing chronological, historical time. Therefore, he published accompanying pamphlets that described the persons and empires in his charts (as well as the methodology behind them).[4] In 1786 in England, William Playfair published A Commercial and Political Atlas, which used charts to denote political change and economic statistics over time, a graphical representation of Britain as the empire of commerce.

A chart from Playfair's A Commercial and Political Atlas (1786)

A chart from Playfair’s A Commercial and Political Atlas (1786)

In the United States following the Revolution, historical writing (and the rise of native forms of literary genres that drew on historical topics) increased dramatically. The vast majority of recent scholarship on this topic has focused on these histories’ primary goal of fostering a new republican national identity by portraying the Revolution as a struggle between the virtuous Americans and the corrupt British. But justifying the Revolution required more than that. It also required the creation of a shared colonial past that would help explain the Revolution.[5]

Perhaps the most eminent of this first generation of American historians was David Ramsay, a doctor from South Carolina and a member of the Continental Congress and the Continental Army.[6] In the 1780s, Ramsay published The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina (1785) and The History of the American Revolution (1789). He would go on to author numerous other works of history, but in 1810, he published his twenty-nine-by-seventeen-inch Historical and Biographical Chart of the United States.[7] In terms of historical charts, it is noteworthy because it incorporates both the history and biography of Priestley’s charts (even adopting biographical categories from Priestley), the commercial charts of Playfair, and a recognition of the increasing importance of geographical knowledge and its relationship to historical knowledge.[8]

Ramsay's Historical and Biographical Chart of the United States (1810)

Ramsay’s Historical and Biographical Chart of the United States (1810) [click to enlarge]

Ramsay, however, was not content to merely represent chronology in a linear fashion. Instead, he sought to illustrate substantive change over time, particularly regarding the political and military circumstances of the colonies. He color-coded his timeline to represent different types of colonial governments, e.g., “free governments,” “royal,” “proprietary,” oligarchic,” or “Parliamentary.” He also color-coded the imperial power over a colony at any given time.[9] His chart also includes symbols denoting the establishment of colleges, rebellions, war with Native Americans, and involvement in imperial wars. Since all of those things became largely irrelevant once the timeline gets past the end of the war—except the establishment of colleges, which continues throughout—that information was replaced with a Playfair-type chart denoting the statistical rise of commerce (i.e., in tonnage, revenue, and exports) over the first five presidential administrations.

At the bottom of Ramsay’s map is a brief account of the history of the United States going back to settlement that begins, “America is transplanted Europe.” The first colonists had “settled down on bare creation” and “turned a wilderness into cultivated fields” by “co-extensively plant[ing] in the woods the seeds of religion, liberty, learning, and useful arts.” This experience (or transplantation) is the basis of what set the Americans apart from the Europeans.[10] The importance of the setting to the narrative, in part, also justifies the inclusion of the full-size map of the United States. After “achiev[ing] consequence . . . without any aid from the mother country,” Britain eventually sought to “annihilate their liberties” by “depriv[ing] them of their property” and “mutilat[ing] their charters.” The timeline shows us colonies enjoying “free government” throughout the seventeenth century until the Dominion and the reign of William & Mary. From that point on until independence, one can see that the colonies suddenly found themselves engaged in both imperial and domestic warfare throughout much of the period.

After the colonies declared independence, Ramsay wrote, “Men from the plough, the shop, and the counter, animated with the inspiration of liberty, became soldiers, and led on by Washington under the smiles of heaven, successfully contended with the veteran armies of Britain till her rulers acknowledged the Colonies to be Independent States.” The work, however, was not done, as Ramsay labeled the confederation period in the timeline as the “Period of nerveless advisory Government.” The Revolution was rescued by “the people in conventions, magnanimously relinquishing some of their personal rights and a portion of their State sovereignty” to ordain “a national constitution.” In the end, “the interests, rights and liberties of each separate State, were thus secured by the wisdom, and guarantied by the strength of the whole.”

Like with Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution, the overall narrative being conveyed is that colonists had once been independent in the earliest decades of settlement, had their independence taken from them by the British government, and then won it back in 1776, which the calendar denotes with: “Independence A Nation born at once.” And since independence had been won back, the new nation had been primarily focused on the hallmarks of a thriving civilization—commerce and learning—and, crucial to the time, continuing to avoid involvement in European conflicts. Despite the setbacks in terms of governance in the colonial period, independence had cleared the way for the new nation. Ramsay was not merely conveying historical chronology with his historical and biographical map, he was using Priestley’s timelines and Playfair’s charts and combining and embellishing them to tell a unifying American narrative of progress, one which all the states (and people of the states) shared and to which they had all contributed.[11]


NB: This post is drawn from a dissertation-in-progress. It was written in part thanks to research done as a Library Resident Research Fellow at the American Philosophical Society.

[1] “History culture” refers to the ways in which a society relates to and uses its own past to order the present. More specifically, it refers to the sum of ideas and assumptions about history generally, references, representations, and uses of the past as part of constructed historical memories, and the individuals, communities, and institutions through which historical knowledge and literature are produced, propagated, and preserved. I would argue that it is worth thinking about it holistically as a coherent cultural sphere because it was based on shared assumptions and beliefs about history, both general and specific, and because, to a large extent, it relied on cultural production, namely texts that are widely circulated.

[2] For the most recent work on this topic, see Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), esp. chs. 1-2.

[3] Joseph Priestley, A Description of a New Chart of History, containing A View of the principal Revolutions of Empire That have taken place in the World (London, 1769), 7, 8, 11-2. [Link to 6th ed., London, 1786]

[4] Joseph Priestley, A Description of a Chart of Biography (Warrington, 1764); Priestley, A Description of a New Chart of History.

[5] I recently presented a paper based on this argument, which forms part of one of my dissertation chapters. See Michael D. Hattem, “Banished to the woods of America’: Reimagining the Colonial Past in the Early Republic,” CUNY EARS 2015 Conference, New York, NY, May 1, 2015.

[6] For a biography of Ramsay, see Arthur H. Shaffer, To be an American: David Ramsay and the Making of the American Consciousness (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991). For recent articles on Ramsay, see Peter C. Messer, “From a Revolutionary History to a History of Revolution: David Ramsay and the American Revolution,” Journal of the Early Republic 22, no. 2 (2002): 205-33; Karen O’Brien, “David Ramsay and the Delayed Americanization of American History,” Early American Literature 29, no. 1 (1994): 1-18; Eve Kornfeld, “From Republicanism to Liberalism: The Intellectual Journey of David Ramsay,” Journal of the Early Republic 9, no. 3 (1989): 289-313.

[7] Ramsay also published a pamphlet to accompany the chart. David Ramsay, A Chronological Table of the Principal Events which have taken place in the English Colonies Now United States, from 1607, till 1810, explanatory of and supplementary to Dr. Ramsays Map Historical and Biographical Chart of the United States and noticing the Progress of Improvement in the same (Charleston: From the Press of J. Hoff, no. 6, Broad-Street, 1811). His initial idea was to print the text of the chronology on either the back of the map or a sheet of similar size. This appears to have proved less practical than printing it as a pamphlet.

[8] There has been a rise of interest in geography and cartography in early America in the past decade or so. See Martin Brückner, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Early American Cartographies, ed. Martin Brückner (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[9] Ramsay noted, “My daughters paint & varnish the map and chart; but the painting each copy requires one [hour?] & 45 minutes.” He was willing to sell them unpainted and unvarnished “for half price.” See David Ramsay to Jedidiah Morse, March 17, 19, 1812, in Robert L. Brunhouse, “David Ramsay, 1749-1815: Selections from His Writings,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 55, no. 4 (1965): 170-1. For other correspondence related to the chart, see Ramsay to Morse, May 3, 1810; Ramsay to John Vaughan, August 13, 1811.

[10] Arthur H. Shaffer, The Politics of History: Writing the History of the American Revolution, 1783-1815 (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1975), 87-102. Shaffer argued that the revolutionary historians primarily offered an “environmentalist” interpretation of the colonial period. Also see Lawrence H. Leder, “Introduction,” in The Colonial Legacy, Volume II: Some Eighteenth-Century Commentators, ed. Lawrence H. Leder (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 2-3.

[11] Brunhouse notes: “There is no indication how the [chart] was received; in fact, no review of it has been found, and copies of the engraving are now scarce.” See Brunhouse, “David Ramsay, 1749-1815,” 45. For an unpainted copy, see David Ramsay, “A map, historical and biographical chart of the United States,” Map Division 01-5265, New York Public Library. Copies are also held at the American Philosophical Society, Maryland Historical Society, and New York Academy of Medicine.

2 comments on “Historical Charts and David Ramsay’s Narrative of Progress

  1. Ramsey was also a favorite orator for Independence Day, etc., speeches in the tradition that extolled the Rising Glory of America. His “Oration of 1778” became especially popular. Written during the Revolution, it represents his unsullied (by the Confederation years to come) belief in the inevitability of America’s glorious destiny, which he then brings to his later writings. It’s great how the short history on the 1785 map has the cadence of oration, too.

  2. Patrick Potyondy says:

    Great post. In addition to Cartographies of Time which you reference in footnote 2, I also recommend Manuel Lima’s book (and website of the same title) Visual Complexity. Both are great for teaching digital or visual history courses.


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