Detail of 1880 “Conspectus of the History of (US) Political Parties,” an attempt to represent graphically just over a century of American politics.
Susan Schulten introduces this interesting antique item at Mapping the Nation.
I had never heard of a â€œconspectus,â€ which is a nineteenth-century term meaning â€œa comprehensive mental survey.â€ And that is exactly the idea. I have only reproduced the image here, and left out the extensive narrative that was designed to be laid out under the chart, which lists political events, Supreme Court decisions, and acts of Congress.
In fact, thereâ€™s so much detail that I wonder about the purpose of the chart. Perhaps the point was to collapse the chaos of change into a single view, one where a partyâ€™s power could be traced over time. The appeal seems to be to capture an overall state of change, of flux. Notice how much the chart resembles a a river. The metaphor is useful â€” the wider the river at any spot, the more â€œpowerfulâ€ the party at that time. Iâ€™m particularly impressed by the representation of the turbulent 1850s, when the Whig Party disintegrated and the Republican Party was founded.
Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.