Why Abraham Lincoln Loved Infographics

Infographics are clearly having a cultural moment. They have become pervasive in newspapers, magazines, blog posts, and viral tweets; they appear on television and in advertising, in political campaigns and at art openings.

Near the end of 1861, with the American Union crumbling, President Abraham Lincoln became obsessed with an unusual document. Nearly three feet in length, it appeared at first to be a map of the southern states. But it was covered with finely rendered shading, with the darkness of each county reflecting the number of slaves who lived there. South Carolina, the first to secede from the Union, featured a particularly dark coastline. Yet other parts of the South (like western Virginia) appeared as islands of lightness.

Lincoln often studied the map, and it “bore the marks of much service,” according to a memoir by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, an eminent painter who was at the White House conducting research for a portrait of the President. At one point, Carpenter borrowed Lincoln’s map so that he could include it in the painting. Some time later, the President visited him in his studio and, spotting his precious map, declared, “Ah! … you have appropriated my map, have you? I have been looking all around for it.” Then Lincoln slipped on his glasses, sat on a trunk by a window, and “began to pore over it very earnestly.”

In the map, Lincoln saw testimony that the American south was not a uniform bloc. Areas of heavy slavery—the darkened banks along the Mississippi River, for example—tended to be secessionist, but the areas in between held the hope of pro-Union sympathy. Unlike traditional cartography, the map was designed to portray political terrain and, in Lincoln’s mind, moral terrain. The President called it his “slave map.” Today we would call it an infographic.


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