The First Census of the United States 1790 Part II


Execution of the Law

Chapter II: Pages: 44-45

Upon the President, whose duties at that period included active supervision of all the routine affairs of government, devolved the task of making the first enumeration. Just what method he followed in putting the First Census law into operation is not definitely known. It is generally supposed that he or the Secretary of State dispatched copies of the law to the different marshals, with orders to take the census; but a search of the correspondence files of the State Department, made to ascertain whether this theory could be substantiated, did not reveal any record of correspondence with the marshals for 1790 other than that in connection with the transmission of their commissions.

It has been suggested by some writers that the marshals may have received their instructions through the governors of the several states. During the early years of the country's history it was customary to transmit to the governor of each state, to be communicated to the legislature, copies of all important Federal laws. In the files of the State Department there is a record that in March, 1790, a circular letter containing two copies of the census act was sent to the governors of the several states, and it has been suggested that this letter may have contained directions to the governors to issue instructions to the marshals; but the fact that no such instructions are included in the list of enclosures given in the following copy of this letter, which was published in the Archives of Pennsylvania, (1) seems inconsistent with this theory:

Office of Secretary of State,
March 31st, 1790


I have the honor to send you, herewith enclosed, two copies, duly authenticated, of the Act providing for the enumeration of the inhabitants of the United States; also of the Act to establish an uniform rule of naturalization; also of the Act making appropriations for the support of the Government for the year 1790, and of being, with sentiments of the most perfect respect.

Your Excellency's most obed't & most h'ble servant,

His Excellency The President of Pennsylvania

This letter does not conclusively disprove the theory, for other letters containing the instructions may have been sent to the governors; but all of the important correspondence of the governor of Pennsylvania for the year 1790 is apparently published in the Archives, and although other letters from Jefferson are included, in none is the subject of the census mentioned. In short, there is little reason to doubt that the Federal Government dealt directly with Federal representatives in the several states and territories.

The First Census law omitted to make provision for an enumeration of the inhabitants in the Northwest and Southwest territories. There is no record of any enumeration of the Northwest Territory in 1790. At that time the governor was actively engaged in Indian warfare, and doubtless it was impossible for him to undertake a census. At any rate, so far as is known there was no correspondence between Secretary Jefferson and Governor St. Clair relative to the subject.

In the case of the Southwest Territory, which was fast being settled, it seems to have occurred to Secretary Jefferson, as an afterthought, that an enumeration of the inhabitants would be of value, and he accordingly sent the following letter to Governor Blount:

 Philadelphia, March 12, 1791


I am honored with your favor of February 17, as I had been before with that of November 26, both of which have been laid before the President.

Within a few days the printing of the laws of the 3d, session of Congress will be completed, and they shall be forwarded to you as soon as they are so.

As the census of all the rest of the Union will be taken in the course of this summer, and will not be taken again under ten years, it is thought extremely desirable that that of your Government should be taken also, and arranged under the same classes as prescribed by the Act of Congress for the general census. Yet that act has not required it in your Territory, nor provided for any expense which might attend it. As, however, you have Sheriffs who will be traversing their Districts for other purposes, it is referred to you whether the taking of the census on the general plan, could not be added to their other duties, and as it would give scarcely any additional trouble, whether it would require any additional re3ward, or more than some incidental accommodation or advantage, which, perhaps, it might be in your power to throw in their way. The returns by the Sheriffs should be regularly authenticated first by themselves, and then by you, and the whole sent here as early in the course of the summer as practicable. I have the honor to be with great esteem and respect, Sir, &C.

                                                              TH. JEFFERSON

As there was no marshal for this territory, for the purpose of this enumeration Governor Blount was virtually both governor and marshal. Hence this letter can hardly be accepted as throwing any light on the question whether the marshals received their instructions from the Secretary of State or from the state governors.

The suggestion has been advanced that the First Census act was considered self-explanatory. The above letter affords no evidence that Governor Blount received any instructions regarding the enumeration other than those contained in the census act. It is probable that the marshals and assistant marshals were allowed to interpret the act for themselves. The form of the returns and of the marshals' summaries is all but conclusive on this point, since there is no uniformity among them. The census act indicated the form of schedule which should be used by the enumerators, and so far as known all the returns were made in accordance with this form, except those for Maine and the Southwest Territory. It also instructed the marshal to show in his summary the aggregate number of each description of persons within his district, but it did not indicate what sub-divisions of the district should be made. Some of the returns give only the information required by the census act, while others give much additional information, such as the number of houses and of families, the excess of males or of females, and the population of towns, townships, and principal places.

(Continue Part III  The Enumeration)


Website: The History
Article Name: The First Census of the United States 1790 Part III
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  From my collection of books "A Century of Population Growth-From the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth 1790-1900." Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of the Census. Publisher: Washington Government Printing Office-1909
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