The first U.S. census was taken on 2 August 1790 in response to the 1790 census act, signed by President George Washington, Vice President John Adams, and Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg on 1 March 1790. This began the process of taking a census every ten years as mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution. The main purpose of the census was and is to determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives to balance the power between the federal government, the states and individuals. As a result of the 1790 U.S. census, the House of Representatives increased in number from 69 to 105 members. Another purpose of this census was to assess the military and industrial strength of the new country as it began to establish itself as an independent nation.
1790 U.S. Census Overview
The first U.S. Census only asked for the names of heads of households and counted all other people only by age, gender, or status, though a more complete questionnaire including occupations had been proposed by James Madison in Congress. The column “free White males aged of 16 years and upward” provided data on the military potential of the United States. To actually gather the census data, the 17 marshals of the U.S. Judicial districts were assigned to supervise visits every household in the (then) 13 states. In reality, they employed an estimated 650 assistant marshals to visit every household in America and ask the following questions:
• The number of free White males aged:
o under 16 years
o of 16 years and upward
• Number of free White females
• Number of other free persons
• Number of slaves
The assistant marshals were required to provide their own paper, write in the headings themselves, and bind them together, so the size and type of pages varied greatly (some were even bound with wallpaper). The original schedules were then kept in the Census Office. The legal time period for enumeration to be completed was nine months, though the enumeration of South Carolina took eighteen months.
According to the census act of 1790, a copy of the completed census (also known as a population schedule) was to be posted in the two most public places in each jurisdiction “for the inspection of all concerned” and an aggregated copy of each district was to go to the President of the United States who then gave them to the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. The official population counted in 1790 was 3,929,214 and the cost of taking the census was $44,377. The official count was considered by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to be an undercount due to some inhabitants being opposed to the census for religious reasons or afraid that it would be used for increased taxation.
Publication of the 1790 U.S. Census
The completed census schedules for the states were filed by the State Department, but the schedules for the states of Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia were accidentally destroyed when the Capitol was burned during the War of 1812. The remaining census population schedules were originally available to the public when they were posted in public places to be checked for accuracy. A summary of the official report to Congress of the results by President George Washington on 27 October 1791 was published in 1793.
By the beginning of the 20th century, it was no longer easy for the public to access copies of the 1790 census and there was a rise in the public’s interest concerning the beginning of the United States and the first U.S. census. In 1907 and 1908, Congress approved funds to publish the 1790 U.S. census “in response to repeated requests from patriotic societies and persons interested in genealogy, or desirous of studying the early history of the United States.” The population schedules of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maryland were published in 1907, while the remaining states were published the next year when additional funds were approved. This continued the tradition begun by the first U.S. census of allowing the census data to be available to the public. Today, censuses are made available to the public 72 years after enumeration to protect the privacy of living individuals.
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