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The First US Census Only Asked Six Questions

America’s founders agreed that the census was important, but it wasn’t long

A census enumerator's records from the 1790 census, the first-ever to be conducted in the United States. (National Archives)
smithsonian.com

August 2, 1790: the first Census Day, when brave enumerators went out on horseback to find, question and catalogue the population of the United States.

Census-taking in the United States dates all the way back to March 1, 1790, when a census was one of the first things that Congress instructed the new government to do. “In authorizing the census… lawmakers were complying with Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which required the federal government to conduct a census of the U.S. population every 10 years,” writes Andrew Glass for Politico. The census has been conducted every 10 years since.

The first census asked just six questions: the name of the (white, male) householder, and then the names of all the other people in the household, divided into these categories: Free white males who were at least 16 years old; free white males who were under 16 years old; free white females; all other free persons; and slaves. The census reflected the values of the United States in 1790: “Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. Indians weren’t counted until 1870,” Glass writes.

“The results were used to allocate Congressional seats… electoral votes and funding for government programs,” writes Jeremy Norman for HistoryofInformation.com. The United States Census Bureau also acknowledges that the precise enumeration of free white males was intended “to assess the country’s industrial and military potential.”

“Under the general direction of Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, marshals took the census in the original 13 States, plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine and Vermont and the Southwest Territory (now Tennessee),” writes the census bureau. “Both George Washington and… Jefferson expressed skepticism over the final count, expecting a number that exceeded the 3.9 million inhabitants counted in the census.”

Surprises aside, approximately 200 copies of the census results were printed and distributed, writes Norman. A look at the bureau’s historical census questionnaires reveals that the questions have significantly expanded. The bureau writes:

The 1810 Census also collected economic data (on the quantity and value of manufactured goods). In 1850, the census began collecting "social statistics" (information about taxes, education, crime, and value of estate, etc.) and mortality data. In 1940, additional questions were asked of a sample of the population, including questions on internal migration, veteran status, and the number of children ever born to women. These questions helped society understand the impact of the Great Depression.

The census is “the nation’s largest civilian exercise,” writes Jeffrey Mervis for Science. The census costs more than $10 billion to conduct and it provides a good portion of the demographic information that the federal government uses to allocate funds. The upcoming 2020 census represents the first time that the census will be able to be filled out online, rather than on paper.  

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