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The Great Enumeration
“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, “said Abraham Lincoln, “we could better judge what to do, and haw to do it. “For nearly two hundred years, the United States Census has been trying to find out.
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
In accordance with the constitutional requirement, the First Congress at its second session enacted a law governing the census. It was approved March 1, 1790, and within a year after George Washington became President the first enumeration was made. The work was done by the United States marshals of the several judicial districts with assistants of their choice, under the supervision of the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. There were no standardized questionnaires, or “schedules,” as they are called in census parlance today, and the assistants, who were paid a pittance, had to provide their own pens and paper. (In fact, no printed schedules were furnished until the census of 1830.)
Though there were only six simple questions to be asked, the task was difficult because of poor transportation, uncertain boundaries, and a scattered population. The people were suspicious, like taxpayers from time immemorial, and consistently underreported. Some had never been counted before, and those good Christians who followed the Bible as a light to their feet feared any counting, and evaded the marshals and their aides when they could. For they remembered a most unpleasant account in the Old Testament of the sin of King David, who incurred the wrath of Heaven when he had his captains number the children of Israel, and so drew down a pestilence upon them. The 1790 census took eighteen months to complete and produced a head count of 3,929,214 Americans. The public, expecting a total above 4,000,000, was disappointed and there was anxiety about the political effect abroad. But President Washington explained the difficulties in detail and gave assurance that “our real numbers will exceed, greatly, the official returns.”
The original law mandating the census was continued with minor changes until 1850. Faced with the possibility of war with Great Britain, Congress in 1810 added an inventory of manufacturers to measure the industrial capacity of the country and its ability to fight or compete for new markets. More questions aiming to get at the resources of the nation, both human and material, were placed in the schedules in 1840. The enumeration was still carried out on a part-time basis by the U.S. marshals, and the information collected continued to be, as it always had been, open to the public. But the product was heavily criticized for its errors.
In answer to the complaints, under the 1850 census law Congress provided that raw data from the field must be sent to Washington to be centrally tabulated there. Further, instead of counting only the head of the family—the traditional method—each family member would be included separately, making possible more sophisticated analysis and cross-tabulation. In Studies in American Demography (1940), Walter F. Willcox called this the most important change in census history.
There was nothing especially notable about the eighth decennial census, but the ninth, taken in 1870, suffered from the disruptions of the Civil War, the disorganization of the government in the South, and the adjustment to the new status of blacks under the Fourteenth Amendment (this was the first census in American history that contained no questions about slaves). Spoilsmen controlled the work of taking the census in 1870. The U.S. marshals looked upon the census as an opportunity to distribute the offices to deserving henchmen, each of whom was instructed to “provide himself with a secure portable inkstand, good ink, and a sufficient number of pens. All entries will be carefully dried with the blotting paper which accompanies each portfolio.” The entire force of enumerators was taken from the Republican party, including some blacks who could not read or write. The able superintendent of the census, Francis Amasa Walker, had no control over the marshals or the quality of their work and was among the most severe critics of the census which he headed. There were newspaper attacks, too, arguing that the census should be confined to its narrow constitutional function; but Walker insisted: “What the country needs is more information, not less.”