From census to non-census: Eyes of the intrusive state

By Erik Jay
web posted January 24, 2000

In 1790, David Howe of Hancock County, Maine, accepted the responsibility for counting the number of people in an area of his state loosely defined by such natural boundaries as foothills, forests, and streams. When he had finished, he posted in several public places his list of the "Whole Number of Persons Counted" (9,549), naming only heads of households and offering as his only statistical analysis the fact that he had included in the enumeration inhabitants of "some isles" not part of "named towns". In a letter to the federal government that accompanied his simple report, Howe opined that he had adequately discharged his duties merely by doing the best possible job under the circumstances.

President Washington would have been quite satisfied with Howe's work on that first federal census, inasmuch as his own expectations about its scope and accuracy were quite low. Even before the effort was undertaken, Washington had written that "one thing is certain: our real numbers will exceed, greatly, the official returns of them; because the religious scruples of some, would not allow them to give in their lists; the fears of others that it was intended as a foundation of a tax induced them to conceal or diminish theirs; and thro' the indolence of the people, and the negligence of many of the [census-takers] numbers are omitted."

The first census having been done in 1790, our nation's "bicentennial' census was in 1990. Depending upon ongoing court cases and various legislative initiatives, that may have been the last census conducted without the aid of questionable "sampling" methods. Whatever happens, the bicentennial-plus-ten census year of 200, the promotion of which will doubtless wax millennial, will be administered by bureaucrats who have much higher expectations for census results than ever envisioned by Hancock County's David Howe.

By amassing data on farms, factories, commerce, communities, institutions, and individuals, the United States government can better manage the myriad programs that seek to fund and administer the needs of the nation and its people. This, at least, was the message of the massive national advertising campaign for the 1990 census, which exhorted Americans to full out census questionnaires with between 13 and 58 more questions than are necessary for a straightforward enumeration.

In 1790, David Howe simply went about counting people, asking only for the names of heads of households and the number of people in them. But in a modern census (we'll use 1990 as our example throughout), in addition to requesting basic name and address information, Bureau of the Census interrogatories delve into Americans' mortgages, pregnancies, language proficiency, work habits, intimate relationships, and indoor plumbing (not just the copper and plastic kind). This intrusiveness is empowered by a federal law making non-compliance punishable by a fine of up to $500. How did the simple census of 1790 evolve into the invasive non-census of today? How did the elementary "enumeration" of Article I, Section II, Clause III of the Constitution of the United States become the compulsory categorization of today?

Despite its big-government bias, an obscure book by Ann Herbert Scott -- "Census USA: Fact Finding for the American People, 1790-1970 (New York; The Seabury Press, 1968) is perhaps the best history of the U.S. census. Scott, who worked as an "enumerator" in the agricultural census of 1964, acknowledges in her book that the Bureau of the Census provided "working headquarters and enthusiastic assistance" while she was writing the book in the late 1960's.

Yet, despite the fact that it often reads like a press release for government "information gathering agencies", "Census USA" is a well-researched and comprehensive work; moreover, the book assembles and organizes a great deal of information many disparate sources. But most important, because it was written by a professional amanuensis for the welfare state,"Census USA" offers not only historical facts but insight into the way the census is being used to justify expansive government.

At the Constitutional Convention, Scott explains correctly, it was determined after much debate that a single head-count for the purposes of apportioning representatives and laying direct taxes made the most sense: The states would not be tempted to arrive at a fatter figure for the former and a leaner one for the latter. "It was the practical problem of balancing power -- rather than a scientific interest in obtaining statistics on the people -- that gave birth to the census," Scott writes. It wasn't long, however, before politicians and bureaucrats began to expand the meaning and the manner of the decennial census to meet the growing "needs" of a growing government.

Throughout the early 1800's, the census increased in scope and complexity. In addition to including information on manufacturing, agriculture, and foreign trade, by the 1840's the census sought to count and categorize the convicts, the deaf and dumb, and the "insane and idiots" in American society. Scott notes that Martin van Buren, who supervised the 1830 census and later became the nation's eight president, was an early proponent of a strong executive branch and supported broad governmental investigation of American society through ever more scientific and specific census questions. For the first nine censuses, incidentally, information was collected by U.S. Marshals and their special deputies.

Legislation passed in 1879-80 created a Census Office in the Department of the Interior and took census responsibilities away from the U.S. Marshals. Soon thereafter, 150 "census supervisor" positions were added to the burgeoning federal bureaucracy and filled by civil servants and political appointees. These supervisors reported to a superintendent appointed by the president, which serves to explain why the census process in the last two decades of the 1800's fell victim to the effects of bureaucratic cronyism and party politics. In 1902, the Bureau of the Census received its present name and permanent status in the federal bureaucracy.

By the end of the 19th century -- about the time that our government began to flex its muscles in the formerly private realms of commerce and industry -- the purpose of the census was clearly not enumeration but the collection and analysis of information for central planning. By the first decade of the 20th century -- when our once-isolationist nation began to be enamored of its new military strength and the trappings of empire -- the once-public listings of "persons counted" had been replaced by secret reports providing much more than population information to a federal government interested in much more than mere statistics.

Coming next week, part 2: "From Census to Non-Census: Down for the Count"

Erik Jay is editor of What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage which you can subscribe to by sending mail to with "subscribe" in the subject line.

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