The First U.S. Census

Today in 1790 Congress passed the Census Act of 1790 and President George Washington signed the law, which authorized the collection of population data by U.S. Marshals.  Although the act included the specific inquiries marshals asked at each home they visited, they did not receive printed forms on which to record the data.  Marshals used their own paper and designed their own forms — a practice followed until the U.S. government began supplying printed census schedules in 1830.

Census Day was on the first Monday in August 1790 and was conducted under the supervision of Thomas Jefferson. Today, the law requires that the census be conducted on or about April 1, and every ten years after that.

Patricia Cline Cohen in A Calculating People: “Madison’s census of occupations [which he proposed for the 1790 census] would reveal the proportions of competing groups only if it were decided that agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing were in fact separable groups constituting the most meaningful distinctions in the social order. In 1820 that step was finally taken; the federal census of that year required that each household be labeled as belonging to one and only sector of the economy. The common good was being broken into constituent parts, and the social order could now be comprehended through arithmetic.”


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