The 1790 census was the first federally sponsored count of the American people. One of the most significant undertakings of George Washington's first term as president, the census fulfilled a constitutional mandate and was interpreted by many as evidence of national prosperity and progress.
No one knew precisely how many people lived in the United States when Washington became president. Although the Articles of Confederation called for a triennial census to be used to divide the tax burden among the states, those enumerations never materialized. Ratified in 1788 and implemented the following year, the U.S. Constitution mandated that "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States . . . according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons . . . and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." The "other persons" were the enslaved.1
The Constitution also stipulated that the census would be decennial and that the first enumeration was to be completed "within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States," which convened in March 1789. Although Sweden was the first country to institute a regular national census, in 1749, the United States was the first to do for the purpose of continually reapportioning legislative seats (in the House of Representatives) to reflect changes in the size and geographic distribution of the population to ensure equitable representation.2
Congress took up the matter of the census in its second session, and "An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States" became law on March 1, 1790. James Madison, the influential Virginia congressman and future president, had pressed for the census to include queries about respondents' occupations "for ascertaining the component classes of the Society, a kind of information extremely requisite to the Legislator" who sought to better serve the needs of his constituents. Although Madison's proposal was included in the bill passed by the House of Representatives, the Senate dismissed his proposal as "a waste of trouble."3
The bill that Washington signed into law specified that the census would include only the names of heads of households and an enumeration of persons divided into five categories: free white males age sixteen and older; free white males under the age of sixteen; free white females; all other free persons; and slaves. The census differentiated white males, but not females, by age because adult white men were widely understood to be the source of a nation's military and economic power. The category "other free persons" included free African Americans, mixed race people, and Native Americans who lived among the white population.4
Overseeing the census was the first significant undertaking for U.S. marshals, the first federal law enforcement officers, one of whom was assigned to each of the thirteen federal judicial districts established by the Judiciary Act of 1789. The census law required each marshal to appoint assistants to canvas their districts. Once they completed their work, each assistant was to post a "correct copy . . . of the schedule containing the number of inhabitants within his division" in two public places "for the inspection of all concerned," so that residents could correct any errors or omissions. Assistants had nine months to complete their work, which they then returned to the marshal, who had an additional four months to verify that he had "a just and perfect enumeration" before submitting it to the district court, which then forwarded the information to the secretary of state.5
The enumeration, which began on the first Monday in August, proceeded efficiently, despite officials' concerns that people would evade the canvassers either on religious grounds—because the Old Testament included story of the "sin of David," who brought a plague to Israel for counting his people—or because they feared that the census was the first step toward implementing new federal taxes.6 In part because the law imposed fines on marshals and assistants whose reports were late, most met their deadlines. Only the state of South Carolina requested and received an extension because, as Washington informed Congress, some of the assistants there had been delinquent and one had "made a sudden Elopement to St Augustine with all his returns," leaving the local marshal scrambling to secure a replacement.7
The census was expensive, with government payments to marshals and assistants totaling $25,727.67. At a time when the overwhelming majority of the total $9 million in annual federal expenditures went to debt repayment and military matters—and when the $38,976.36 spent on lighthouses, beacons, and buoys was the only other major allocation for public projects—the cost of the census was significant.8 Like the lighthouses and other coastal safety endeavors that protected the commercial shipping whose taxes were the nation's chief source of income, however, the census was also essential to the functioning of government.
Washington and other political leaders eagerly anticipated the results of the census. In December 1790, the president optimistically predicted that "the numbers of our people . . . will not fall short, it is said, of five millions—some think more." Thomas Jefferson's estimate, at four million, was more accurate.9 The final tally, released by the government in 1792 and also included in digest form in some almanacs and geographies, was 3,919,023 people, divided among fourteen states, Kentucky (a territory before attaining statehood in 1792), and the Southwest territories (Tennessee).10
The main objective of the census was to gather data to enable legislators to assign political representation in proportion to each state's population. (Using the census to apportion taxes was tried in 1798 but abandoned a few years later.)11
In 1792, as Congress became increasingly divided between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, conflicting plans for reapportionment emerged, especially as members tried to adjust representation to correct the original misallocation of seats in the Constitution by which some states had received more, and others fewer, representatives than their population warranted.
Translating population data into fairly apportioned legislative seats involved complicated debates over the both the size of the House of Representatives and the ratio of people to its members, issues on which the Constitution offered no guidance aside from requiring that "that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons." Alexander Hamilton, Federalist leader and treasury secretary, argued that the size of the House should be fixed at 120 members before its seats were reapportioned, but his plan used a method opposed by Virginia and other states that would have lost seats if it were implemented. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and fellow-Virginian James Madison, leaders of the emerging Democratic-Republican party, favored a different plan. The latter prevailed when, after Washington vetoed Hamilton's preferred bill, he signed another that set the number of members of the House of Representatives at 105 and the ratio of persons to representatives at 33,000:112.
While Congress and other government officials wrestled with the political arithmetic of implementing the census at home, others eagerly anticipated its impact abroad where the United States struggled to gain the respect of (and lucrative commercial agreements with) Europe's great powers. Washington, for instance, predicted that proof of the republic's growing population would "astonish Europe . . . [and] add consequence to the union of these states."13
American leaders saw the census as an important corrective to the snide British predictions that the United States would experience decay and decline, and ultimately become dependent—economically, if not politically—on Britain and its empire. James Baker Holroyd, Earl of Sheffield, a particularly influential and outspoken critic, asserted that Americans over-estimated both their population's natural increase and their country's attractiveness to prospective emigrants; he also contended that Americans had "lost much by their Separation" from Britain. While Britons could readily do without American commodities, he believed, Americans would find it nearly impossible to forgo British imports or to prosper without access to British markets.14
Some envisioned the U.S. census as weapon to be deployed against Sheffield's widely circulating Observations on the Commerce of the American States and other criticism. As secretary of state, Jefferson sent census figures to David Humphreys and William Carmichael—American diplomats in Spain and Portugal, respectively—as well as to William Short, his former secretary who would soon become the U.S. representative in the Netherlands. Because Europeans, Jefferson believed, “have scarcely any true ideas of … the U.S.,” the census would "do us vast service in Europe," counteracting the effects of "Lord Sheffield’s illusive Work" and dispelling "the mists of prejudice." Gouverneur Morris, the top U.S. diplomat in Paris agreed. "There can be no Doubt," he reassured Washington, "that a Publication of the Census and a clear State of our finances will impress a Sense of our Importance on the Statesmen of Europe." Jefferson sent Morris a copy of the full census report soon after it was published.15
America's defenders cited evidence from the census to fortify their critiques of Sheffield and other European detractors. In an important rebuttal to Sheffield, Tench Coxe argued that the census revealed continuing population growth, which, in turn, attested to the prosperity and overall bright future of an independent America. William Barton, who attributed population growth mainly to early marriage and larger families, averred that both were made possible by America's prosperity and good government. Jeremy Belknap used census data to confirm his earlier observations (in his history of New Hampshire) that longevity, healthfulness, and availability of land all contributed to population increase. Samuel Hopkins emphasized that population growth, as verified in the census, was the happy result of the good "state of manners, society, property, and government" in the American republic.16
Others clearly shared this happy interpretation of the meaning of the 1790 census. In October 1791, when President Washington presented the results of the census to Congress, its members, too, framed the enumeration as a vindication of their national republican experiment. The census, they declared, "is a source of the most pleasing reflections, whether it be viewed in relation to our national safety and respectability; or as a proof of that felicity in the situation of our Country, which favors so unexampled a rapidity in its growth."17
Cynthia A. Kierner
Professor of History
George Mason University
1. James H. Cassedy, The Demography of Early America: Beginnings of the Statistical Mind, 1600-1800 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969), 66-67, 189-93, 197-204.
2. Patricia Cline Cohen, A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (1999; London: Routledge, 2016), 231 n 47; Margo J. Anderson, The American Census: A Social History, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 6.
3. An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, Mar. 1, 1790, U.S. Statutes at Large, ch. 2, 11 Stat. 101; James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 14 February 1790, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-13-02-0033; Cohen, Calculating People, 159-64.
4. For a general overview, see Frederick G. Bohme, 200 Years of U.S. Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790-1900 (Washington: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1989), 1.
5. Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants.
6. Cohen, Calculating People, 35; Census, [2 February] 1790, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-13-02-0017; Edward Carrington to James Madison, 1 August 1790, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed 11 November 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-13-02-0210; George Washington diary entry, 24 April 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-06-02-0002-0003-0018; Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 28 July 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0261.
7. Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants; Report on the Census, 24 October 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-22-02-0216; Washington to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, 1 November 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0080.
8. Account of Receipts and Expenditures of U.S. for Year 1792 . . . Published by Order of the House of Representatives (Philadelphia: John Fenno, 1794). On the expansive powers of the new national government, and their almost exclusive confinement to fiscal and military matters, see Max M. Edling, A Hercules in the Cradle: War, Money, and the American State, 1783-1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
9. Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 17 December 1790, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0050; Jefferson to William Short, 28 July 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-20-02-0339.
10. Return of the Whole Number of Persons within the Several Districts of the United States (Philadelphia: Childs and Swain, 1791); Banneker's Almanac, and Ephemeris for the Year . . . 1793 . . . (Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1792); William Waring, Poor Will's Almanack, for the year of our Lord, 1793 (Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1792); Jedidiah M. Morse, Geography Made Easy, 3rd ed. (Boston: Samuel Hill, 1791), 322.
11. Anderson, American Census, 17-18.
12. Anderson, American Census, 15-17. See also Madison to Edmund Pendleton, 21 January 1792, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-14-02-0174; Madison to James Madison Sr., 15 March 1792, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-14-02-0227.
13. Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 17 December 1790, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0050.
14. James Baker Holroyd, Earl of Sheffield, Observations on the Commerce of the American States, 2nd ed. (London: J. Debrett, 1784), esp. 134-35.
15. Jefferson to David Humphreys, 23 August 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-22-02-0062; Jefferson to William Carmichael, 24 Aug. 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-22-02-0064; Jefferson to William Short, 29 August 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-22-02-0089; Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 10 Mar. 1792, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-23-02-0210; Gouverneur Morris to George Washington, 9 March 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0303.
16. Tench Coxe, A Brief Examination of Lord Sheffield’s Observations on the Commerce of the United States (Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1791); [Coxe], “A Brief Examination of Lord Sheffield’s Observations on the Commerce of the United States. THE FIFTH NUMBER,” American Museum, or Universal Magazine, 9 (June 1791): 289-95; William Barton, Observations on the Progress of Population, and the Probabilities of the Duration of Human Life, in the United States of America (Philadelphia: R. Aitken & Son, 1791); Jeremy Belknap, The History of New-Hampshire, Volume III (Boston, Belknap and Young, 1792), 234-37; Samuel Hopkins, “Facts and Calculations Respecting the Population and Territory of the United States of America,” Weekly Magazine: Of Original Essays, Fugitive Pieces & Interesting Intelligence 3 (August 1798): 45–50.
17. Address of the House of Representatives to the President, [27 October] 1791, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-14-02-0080.
Andersen, Margo. The American Census: A Social History. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
_____. "The Census, Audiences, and Publics." Social Science History, 32 (2008): 1-18.
Bohme, Frederick G. 200 Years of U.S. Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790-1900. Washington: U.S. Department of Commerce/Bureau of the Census, 1989.
Cassedy, James H. Demography in Early America: Beginnings of the Statistical Mind, 1600-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969.
Cohen, Patricia Cline. A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America. London: Routledge, 2016.