A More Perfect Infographic

In 1790, revolution was in the air: the French Revolution had ignited imaginations and provoked excitement and concern across Europe and North America. To the English political, religious, and educational thinker David Williams, the time was ripe, as he wrote to his French colleague Jacque Pierre Brissot, to make “the principles of your Revolution… intelligible to the Public.” He attempted to do so in a pamphlet entitled Lessons to a Young Prince, by an Old Statesman, addressed to the Prince of Wales.

Williams’s attempt to demystify statecraft for the common man was not universally appreciated by his contemporaries, including his rival Edmund Burke. Part of Williams’s strategy was to include diagrams that would show how different constitutional systems were structured—in his words, to “explain your [the French Revolutionary] Constitution to the Eye—the only Avenue to some Understandings.” The Lessons were a success, going through seven editions in 1790 and 1791, thanks in part to these eighteenth-century infographics. Among them is an early visual depiction of the structure of state and federal representatives of citizens as delineated in the United States Constitution, just fully ratified by the last of the 13 original states in May 1790, for comparison to the constitutional structures in Great Britain and France.

Williams, who knew Benjamin Franklin and other influential Americans well, says of the process of the making of the U.S. Constitution, “when the leaders of the American States assembled to form the Constitution of the Republic, not one of them discovered the genius of a great statesman. But the American character served them on that occasion: they had patience; information flowed in from every part of the world; and they formed with considerable skill the federative constitution of the American states.”

The diagram of “The Constitution of the American States” shows the 13 original states’ proportional representation in Congress. Williams approved of such representation, referring to it as “the unequal magnitude of the bodies, which…contribute a numerical proportion toward the wisdom and power of Congress.” But Williams doubted, rather presciently, whether the division of power among the U.S. government’s three principal bodies could achieve a larger unity: “I am convinced the whole wants harmony, capacity of common judgment and general will, which would have resulted from a general organization of the republic into one body; and that in time, the various characters and interests of the American States will disunite and alienate them.”

The Newberry holds multiple editions of the Lessons to a Young Prince, including the first American edition, published in New York in 1791 and later included in a volume of political pamphlets issued by the important Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey in 1796.

This essay was written by Director of Reader Services and Curator of Americana Will Hansen.