All the way back in 1790, the very first census asked for just six things: the name of the head of the household, the number of free white males over 16, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free persons, and enslaved people in the household. Enslaved people were counted as three-fifths of a person. American Indians were not counted at all (unless they were taxed). This original census, under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, covered the original 13 states, plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). U.S. Marshals acted as the first enumerators (census takers) and came up with a count of 3.9 million. George Washington and Jefferson expected the number to be higher and were unconvinced of the veracity of the count. The first census left a lot to be desired but ever since that time, a census has been conducted every ten years.
So, why do we conduct the census?
According to the United State Census Bureau, “the framers of the Constitution of the United States chose population to be the basis for sharing political power, not wealth or land”. The census aims to count the population of the country to decide on federal funds, grants and support to states, and apportionment of representatives among other things. Apportionment refers to the process of diving the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives based on state population counts from each census. The number of seats each state receives is set for 10 years until the next census. The answers given in the census cannot be used against respondents, they can only be used to produce statistics. The Census Bureau is required by law to protect personal information and keep it confidential. The information cannot be shared with any government agency, court, or with law enforcement.
While the reason for conducting a census has not changed in 230 years, the structure has gone through changes. The big change for the census this year is the option to respond online not just by phone or mail. In the past, U.S. Marshals acted as enumerators of the census and visited every household to obtain a tally. In 1820, this took 7 months to complete the count. The 1820 census is also notable for being the first to inquire if respondents were engaged in agriculture, commerce, or manufacturing. The next census in 1830 was the first time uniform printed schedules were used, which helped tabulate the results more efficiently. Previously, enumerators used whatever paper was available and designed the sheets themselves. In 1840, the census began to collect more data including “the pursuits, industry, education, and resources of the country” and questions about school attendance, literacy, and vocation were added, according to the United States Census Bureau.
The 1850 census is notable for being the first in which every free person’s name is listed, not just the head of household. The 1880 census was the first to have specially trained and hired enumerators rather than U.S. Marshals. It was also the first census to actually count all American Indians in the United States. During these early censuses, enumerators did not always ask how to spell names and no proof of age was required. Enumerators also determined race on the form, not the respondents.
The 1960 census marked the first mail-out census, which meant respondents filled out the answers themselves, rather than the enumerators. The next census in 1970 allowed for people in urban and surrounding areas to mail the census forms back rather than wait for an enumerator. This meant enumerators only had to visit homes if there was no questionnaire completed or there was missing or incorrect information. The population count collected from the 2010 census was 308,745,538, quite a rise from the very first census 230 years ago!
The museum will be posting a series of blogs in the coming month about the census and what it means for historians.
If you would like more information about the upcoming
census, visit the United States Census 2020 resource at https://2020census.gov/en.html.
 The three-fifths compromise was an agreement reached by the state delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. For taxation and representative purposes, each enslaved person was counted as three-fifths of a person so the less populated south could receive more electoral power than they would have if the enslaved population was not counted.