Today in 1790, the first enumeration of the 1790 U.S. Census began. Congress assigned responsibility for the 1790 census to the marshals of the U.S. judicial districts under an act that, with minor modifications and extensions, governed census-taking through 1840.
The law required that every household be visited and that completed census schedules be posted in ‘‘two of the most public places within [each jurisdiction], there to remain for the inspection of all concerned…’’ and that “the aggregate amount of each description of persons’’ for every district be transmitted to the President. The six inquiries in 1790 called for the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household of the following descriptions: Free White males of 16 years and upward (to assess the country’s industrial and military potential), free White males under 16 years, free White females, all other free persons (by sex and color), and slaves.
Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (not unlike others many years later) expressed skepticism over the final count, expecting a number that exceeded the 3.9 million inhabitants counted in the census.
“Authentic facts,” Patricia Cline Cohen tells us in A Calculating People, were held to be “the essential foundation of good government. Authors of gazetteers and statistical accounts constantly advertised the value of their works for the makers of public law and policy. Wise governmental actions would flow from certain knowledge, whereas uncertain, speculative, or theoretical assertions led inevitably to conflict of opinions.”
Later, in 1859, Joseph Kennedy of the census office, said that the proper object of statistics is “the amelioration of man’s condition by the exhibition of facts whereby the administrative powers are guided and controlled by the lights of reason…”
Cohen concludes: “There is a striking element of hubris in nineteenth-century statistical thought, a hubris that is still at work in the twentieth. To measure is to initiate a cure.”