The Great Enumeration

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Americans are a counting nation. They like figureslarge figures such as the gross national product, industrial production, consumer spending, consumption of energy, even measures of economic activity in such arcane areas as the production of brooms, brushes, and pickles. Especially do our people like to count themselves. This has been going on for a long time, serially in every year ending in zero since 1790. There is more to this than a mere quirk of national character. Statistics as an instrument for ensuring political equality are imbedded in the United States Constitution, which requires that political power be apportioned according to population. That is the primary historical and legal reason why we count ourselves every decade with a margin of error that has been thinned down to 2.5 per cent and is expected to fall still lower in 1980.

Since the beginning of recorded history, kings and potentates have numbered their subjects in order to tax them or to find out how many potential warriors their realms contained. There are indications of population counts in ancient Japan, China, Egypt, and in Babylonia; also in Greece, and among the Romans who gave us the word “census.” Hebrew enumerations are mentioned in the Bible. Monks were the principal custodians of vital statistics in the Middle Ages. In England’s American colonies, ministers, sextons, and elders kept church records which provided the heavenly demographic record of the elect and the damned. An increase in population was taken in New England as a sign of God’s favor toward the Congregational Church. Though no official government enumeration of the colonies as a whole was ever undertaken. But thirty-eight censuses of individual colonies were taken, most often when the Privy Council or the Board of Trade needed demographic facts for the governance of British America. The value of the information that was compiled varied greatly. The colonial governors, when commanded to initiate and supervise the task, could be energetic, or independent, lazy, overworked, or inclined to tell London what it wanted to hear. Local officials who did the actual work displayed little enthusiasm for so onerous an exertion which was, moreover, not part of their legally defined duties. The people, suspecting that the inquiries had something to do with taxes, were evasive and uncooperative.

It is the special distinction of the United States Census that it is regarded as being the first in modern times to conduct a periodic enumeration of the people and to be strictly uniform in its recurrence. But our census did not arise primarily from a sudden appreciation of its usefulness in the gathering of social statistics and economic information to guide public and private decision makers. It was, rather, the result of a masterly compromise, one of the great political achievements in our history. Because of it, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were able to complete their work successfully.

The background was this: under the weak Articles of Confederation the debts incurred by the central government for the common defense during the Revolutionary War were to be charged to the states in proportion to the value of their surveyed land, not their population. Congress consisted of a single house, every state having one vote. Congress could apportion the tax burden but each state retained the authority to levy and collect its share. This meant, in effect, that payment was voluntary; the United States could beg but not command it.

The adoption of the Constitution changed all that, but only after a monumental battle between the big states, which wanted representation in Congress to be determined by population, the small states, which wanted to retain the one-state, one-vote principle, and the Southern states, which wanted to include slaves whom the slaveowners regarded as people when they were thinking about their state’s representation in Congress but as property when they thought about taxation based upon population.

In the end the delegates worked out a most ingenious solution which made the Constitution finally acceptable to all: it called for a census to be taken within three years and every subsequent ten years, and Congress to consist of two branches—the Senate, where all states were represented equally, and the House of Representatives, where the populous states would have the greatest vote. In a concession to the Southern states, they were permitted to add to the number of free persons “three fifths of all other Persons,” meaning their slaves, for representation in the House.

The stroke of genius lay in a provision that direct taxes were to be apportioned in the same way as the House of Representatives. This tying together of representation and taxation removed any bias on the part of the states toward the census since it eliminated, as James Madison wrote in The Federalist , any temptation to cook the books, that is, “to swell or reduce the amount of their numbers. Were their share of representation alone to be governed by this rule, they would have an interest in exaggerating their inhabitants. Were the rule to decide their share of taxation alone, a contrary temptation would prevail. By extending the rule to both objects the states will have opposite interests, which will control and balance each other; and produce the requisite impartiality.”