Building the Digital Lincoln  •  digital history project, september 2009

Jonathan Feinberg designed Wordle, a free program that allows users to create artistic word clouds out of text. These clouds help readers see the frequency of word usage. Below is a Wordle cloud for the one hundred most commonly used phrases in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. The cloud is clickable to the actual debate text where Lincoln or Stephen Douglas mentioned these words. As a powerful teaching and analytical tool, the word cloud demonstrates, for example, how the debates focused on the national argument over slavery. One can also use this clickable cloud to browse all of the instances in the debates that produced “laughter” or “cheers,” at least according to the very partisan newspaper transcribers.

1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Image courtesy of Wordle.

The Fourth Charleston Debate

Word clouds of a particular debate can be valuable as well. Below is an image of a word cloud of the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate, at Charleston, where Lincoln stated, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” This line has become one of the most frequently quoted of Lincoln’s words in classrooms and scholarship, yet this word cloud illustrates that “Trumbull” (as in the Republican Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull) was a topic referenced far more often in that discussion than was “negro.” This insight helps indicate how preoccupations in 1858 were much different than ours today.

To view word clouds of all seven debates and to see comparative clouds of modern-day debates, such as the famous Kennedy-Nixon clash of 1960 or the Gore-Bush presidential debate of 2000, go to the House Divided Lincoln Douglas Digital Classroom.

Debate 4
Image courtesy of Wordle.