The First Census of the United States 1790 Part I

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The provision under which the Federal census is taken is contained in Article I, section 2, of the Constitution of the United States, which directs that__

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons. The actual 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 debates in the Constitutional Convention do not afford any evidence that the scope of the census was seriously considered. There is reason to believe, how-ever, that many members of the convention had in mind more than a mere count of the inhabitants. Several of them contended that representatives and direct taxes should be apportioned according to wealth as well as population. Mr. Ellsworth introduced a motion "that the rule of contribution by direct taxation, for the support of the Government of the United States, shall be the number of white inhabitants, and three-fifths of every other description in the several states, until some other rule, that shall more accurately ascertain the wealth of several states, can be devised and adopted by the legislature." (1) Mr. Williamson introduced a motion "that, in order to ascertain the alterations that may happen in the population and wealth of the several states, a census shall be taken of the free white inhabitants, and three-fifths of those of other descriptions," etc. (2)

The First Census Act Pages: 42-43

The provision of the Constitution quoted above does not clearly define the scope of the census, and the question whether it is restrictive, that is, whether the words "actual enumeration" apply exclusively to the objects mentioned has never been considered judicially. But the provision has often been interpreted as restrictive, and the question has been raised whether Congress has not transcended its constitutional powers in authorizing purely statistical inquiries other than those for the single purpose of apportioning representatives and direct taxes. (3) In this connection the debates in Congress on the bill providing for the First Census are of especial interest.

On May 18, 1789, soon after the convening of the First Congress, a committee was appointed in the House of Representatives to prepare and bring in a bill providing for the "actual enumeration of the inhabitants of the United States, in conformity with the Constitution;" this committee never reported. On January 11, 1790, another committee, consisting of ten members (one from each state), was appointed for the same purpose; it reported a bill on January 19.

The House debates on this bill are reported in the Annals of Congress, First Congress, second session. From Mr. Madison's remarks it is evident that the schedule reported by the committee provided for only a bare enumeration of the inhabitants.

Mr. Madison observed that they had now an opportunity of obtaining the most useful information for those who should hereafter be called upon to legislate for their country, if this bill was extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants; it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community. In order to know the various interests of the United States, it was necessary that the description of the several classes into which the community is divided should be accurately known. On this knowledge the legislature might proceed to make proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests, but without it they could never make their provisions in due proportion.

This kind of information, he observed, all legislatures had wished for, but this kind of information had never been obtained in any country. He wished, therefore, to avail himself of the present opportunity of accomplishing so valuable a purpose. If the plan was pursued in taking every future census, it would give them an opportunity of marking the progress of the society and distinguishing the growth of every interest. This would furnish ground for many useful calculations, and at the same time answer the purpose of a check on the officers who were employed to make the enumeration, for as much as the aggregate number is divisible into parts, any imposition might be discovered with proportionable ease. If these ideas meet the approbation of the House, he hoped they would pass over the schedule in the second clause of the bill, and he would endeavor to prepare something to accomplish this object.

The House granted Mr. Madison's request, and he formulated a more elaborate schedule. Just what his plan was in detail is not stated in the Annals of Congress, but the issue of the Boston Gazette and the Country Journal for February 8, 1790, in its report of the proceedings of Congress, contains the following:

Mr. Madison proposed the following as the form of a general schedule, in lieu of that in the bill, viz:
Free white males under 16.
Free white males above 16.
White females.
Free blacks.
He then proposed that a particular schedule should likewise be included in the bill, specifying the number of persons employed in the various arts and professions carried on in the United States.

When the bill again came up for discussion, on February 2__

Mr. Livermore apprehended this (Madison's) plan was too extensive to be carried into operation and divided the people into classes too minute to be readily ascertained. For example, many inhabitants of New Hampshire pursued two, three, or four occupations, but which was the principal one depended upon the season of the year or some other adventitious circumstance; some followed weaving in the spring and summer, but the making of shoes was the most predominant in the fall and winter; under what class are these people to be thrown, especially if they joined husbandry and carpenter's work to the rest?" He was confident the distinction which the gentlemen wished to make could not be performed. He was therefore against adding additional labor, and consequently incurring additional expense, whether the work was executed or not. Besides this, he apprehended that it would excite the jealousy of the people; they would suspect that the Government was too particular, in order to learn their ability to bear the burden of direct or other taxes, and under this idea they may refuse to give the officer such a particular account as the law requires, by which means you expose him to great inconvenience and delay in the performance of his duty. * * *

Mr. Page thought this particular method of describing the people would occasion alarm among them; they would suppose the Government intended something, by putting the Union to this additional expense, besides gratifying an idle curiosity; their purposes can not be supposed the same as the historian's or philosopher's__they are statesmen, and all their measures are suspected of policy. If he had not heard the object so well explained on this floor, as one of the people, he might have been jealous of the attempt, as it could serve no real purpose, for he contended, if they were now acquainted with the minutiae they would not be benefited by it. He hoped the business would be accomplished in some other way. * * *

Mr. Madison thought it was more likely that the people would suppose the information was required for its true object, namely, to know in what proportion to distribute the benefits resulting from an efficient General Government.

It is significant that in the discussion of Madison's schedule there is no suggestion recorded in the Annals of Congress that it was unconstitutional; but the Boston newspaper quoted above has this paragraph:

Mr. White said that tho' he should be pleased with obtaining an enumeration on the gentleman's plan, he rather supposed that Congress is not authorized by the Constitution to call for so particular an account. The Constitution refers only to a census for the more perfectly equalizing the representation.

This objection had apparently little weight, and the bill passed with Madison's schedule and all of his amendments.

In the Senate the provision for ascertaining the occupations of the people was rejected on what grounds is not known, for the debates of that body at that time were behind closed doors.

In the debate in the House with regard to the time to be allowed for completing the enumeration, six, four, and three months were proposed. Mr. Sedgwick, of Massachusetts, believed that since so long a time was to elapse before the assistants were to enter upon their duties the work of preparation should be completed in two or three months, and possibly one month would be sufficient. it was argued that the longer the time allowed the less accurate would be the returns.

Mr. Madison observed that the situation of the several states was so various that the difficulty of adopting a plan for effecting the business upon terms that would give general satisfaction could only be obviated by allowing sufficient time. Some of the states have been accustomed to take the enumeration of their citizens; others have never done it at all. To the former the business will be easy, and may be completed within the shortest period; in the others it will be attended with unforeseen difficulties.

Six months was agreed upon by the House, but in the Senate this was changed to nine months. The bill passed the Senate on February 22 and was approved by the President on March 1, 1790.


(1) The Madison Papers, page 1082.

(2) Elliott's Debates on the Federal Constitution, vol. 5, page 295.

(3) Encyclopaedia Brittanica, vol. 5, page 339.

(Continue Part II Provisions of the Act.)


Website: The History
Article Name: The First Census of the United States 1790 Part I
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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