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.

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