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[Detail] Lincoln Centennial Association

Historical Comprehension: Using Data Presented in Charts

Abraham Lincoln, first elected to the Illinois legislature in 1834, served four terms, but decided not to run for a fifth term in 1842. A table in the collection presents data about the members of the legislature in Lincoln’s last term.

When studying a table, whether it presents historical or current data, the title and the column headings can tell you what kind of data the table presents. The next step is examining the data in the various categories (columns); in examining the data, look for patterns and identify interesting “outliers” (cases that don’t fit the patterns). You may find it useful to tally data for subcategories of information (for example, the number of legislators in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s) or graph or map some of the data (for example, show the home states of the legislators on a map of the United States in 1840). Use the results of your analysis to form generalizations.

Study the chart of data on the 12th General Assembly of the State of Illinois and answer these questions:

  • What does the title of the table tell you about the data presented?
  • Why does the table have two sections?
  • What information does the table provide on each member of the legislature? Why do you think people in the 1840s were interested in where legislators were born (nativity)? How interested would today’s reader be in knowing that information? Consider why the information in each column was noteworthy in 1840 and whether it would be noteworthy today.
  • What is the most common profession practiced by members of the legislature? The second most common profession? What other professions are represented? What generalization might this data suggest?
  • What other generalizations might you draw based on the data in this table?
  • Would you say Lincoln was typical or atypical of members of the Illinois General Assembly in 1840? Explain your answer.

If you were to construct a table of information about members of your state’s legislators today, what categories of information would you include? Why? Conduct research to create a table about your state legislators. Trade tables with a classmate and determine what generalizations each of you can make based on the other’s table.