1st US Census Had Controversy: Nothing Has Changed But We Have


1930 Census taker didn't look too much different from the one in 1790, though he did get to use a pad

Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State, Was the Chief Administrator for the 1790 Census

On This Date in History:  Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution states that:  “[An] Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”  The constitution was ratifed in 1787, the first Congress convened in 1789 and the first census began on this date in 1790, under the ulitmate mangement of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.    Now, one would think that there would be no question since the document that called for a counting of the people had just been put in place a three years before the first count.  Well, that would be wrong; the history of the first census included its share of political intrigue.  Congress and politicians can’t ever seem to do anything without some controversy.  The debate following the first Congress regarding the census revolved around when the count should be taken.  Some said it should be delayed until after the election.  Opponents to the delay claimed that those who wanted to wait simply wanted to do so because of their knowledge that their state was over represented in the intial figures on which the Constitution was based.   Then there were those who were concerned about the questions being asked and the number of questions.  A guy from New Hampshire thought a question about one’s profession would be difficult since most men had more than one method of earning a living.  A representative from Connecticut said that there should be more probing questions in order to gain a  better picture of America.   On March 1, 1790 the issue was settled when Congress passed a bill that called for the appointment of census marshals and assistants. 

1790 Census Free Persons By State, Other Than White

The marshals were directed to: “cause the number of the inhabitants within their respective districts to be taken; omitting in such enumeration Indians not taxed, and distinguishing free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, from all others; distinguishing also the sexes and colours of free persons, and the free males of sixteen years and upwards from those under that age.”  That meant recording the names of the head of each household, the number of white males who were at least 16 years of age, the number of white females and the number of all other “free” persons.  They also were to provide the number of slaves owned by each household.  While the census questions have changed since the first effort, the job of the census worker has remained quite arduous.  Back in 1790, a deputy marshal of the US District Court had to travel in all sorts of weather on dirt roads and wilderness trails combing the area assigned to him.   He stopped at backwoods cabins, country stores, farms and plantations carrying some loose sheets of paper and a bottle of ink in his saddlebag.   

1790 Free Population By State

That first census took 18 months to complete and concluded that there was 3, 929, 214 people in America.  Over 19% of those individuals were African American with the majority being held in slavery.  According to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, those enslaved persons were to be counted as 3/5 of a person.  That was a result of the nonsensical and dehumanizing compromise made in order to persuade the southern states to ratify the Constitution.    Today, we are used to charges that the census under counted people and that was the case from the beginning.  Some late 18th Century  Americans were certain that there was over 4 million inhabitants of the nation and thought the count was a bit anemic.  They feared that a number less than 4 million would not be too impressive to the European nations.  But, President Washington assured that nation that “our real numbers will exceed, greatly, the official returns.”  That statement leaves much to the imagination.  Perhaps General Washington had gotten his sea legs in the political arena by that time.

Actual Census Taker's Ledger from 1790 Census

This past year, the census seemed to be pretty short.  In past years, there had been all sort of questions.  Back in 1790 they didn’t even ask the place of one’s birth nor anyone’s relgious preferences.  If I recall that was a change because in years past I had a whole host of questions.  It appears that the number and types of questions have varied through the years.  James Madison had been in the camp of those who wanted more information and apparently enough people agreed because by 1830, printed questionnaires became part of the census.  By 1890, the government really outdid itself and asked some 35 questions that could require as much as  13,000 bits of information.  What made that possible was technology as the first punch-card computer became available.  Many issues of contention regarding the census have arisen throughout its history.   I suppose the numbers and types of questions have been reduced over the years from a combination of American’s fear of providing too much information to the government and also their simple refusal to take the time to answer such a gluttony of questions.

US Population 1790 to 2000

In the latter part of the 20th century, census numbers reflected the movement of Americans from the northern and eastern states to those in the South and West.  Back in 1790, the most populous state was Virginia with almost a fifth of the nation’s population.  However, it was a agrarian state with a number of small communities.  The largest city in the nation, according to the 1790 census, was New York with over 33,000 people.  The Big Apple was followed, perhaps predictably, by Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston and Baltimore.  But, the final 5 of the top 10 are probably pretty difficult for most people to find on a map today.  In order from 6 to 10 the cities and townships were: Northern Liberty, PA; Salem, MA; Watervilet, NY; Ballstown, NY; and Stephentown, NY.  While the questions may have changed and the way we answer the questions may be in constant flux, some of the communities that once dominated America have been left to obscure spots in a Rand McNally map book. 

Weather  Bottom Line:  The heat is back as a big fat ridge is nosing up from the Southwest.  Look for low to mid 90’s on Monday but Tuesday and Wednesday should be real heaters with highs in the mid to upper 90’s.  We may get a couple of afternoon or evening t’showers on Wednesday but I think that the best chance for rain and t’storms will be Thursday with the passage of a cold front.  We can use the rain but, perhaps more importantly, the front will take the edge off the tempertures with highs being brought back to around the 90 degree mark Friday through Sunday.  We may not get to 90 on Friday and maybe Saturday…but thats just getting us back to seasonal conditions.  In other words, nothing too exciting and excessive heat won’t be around for too long..this time.

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2 Responses

  1. I just impressed a friend with the fact that her town (Charleston) was a “biggie” in 1790.

    This year, I got to meet a live census-taker. The form I was promised never showed up in the mail, and evantually a nice lady arrived at my door. It seems entire blocks in our neighborhood had been passed over. I gave her answers and offered a glass of iced tea, but she said they’d been told not to accept such offerings in case some anti-government sort decided to take it out on the census taker.

    A blogger now living in Panama reported on their process recently. On the day (!) of the census, everyone stays home, under penalty of law. They do the entire country in that one day. Once the census-taker has been at your home, you get a sticker affixed to the front door. At 7 p.m. or so, the census is over and you’re free to go outdoors.

    Can you just imagine?!?

  2. Somehow I don’t think that would work unless they did the census on the day of the Super Bowl

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