This Week in Civil Rights History: Anniversary of the First Census

Categories: Census, News

On August 2, 1790, U.S. judicial marshals and their assistants began the first United States census, eventually tallying the entire population of the United States at 3.9 million, less than 13 percent of the current U.S. population. 

The first census was scheduled to take only nine months and was executed by 17 judicial marshals assisted by only 650 field workers.  The entire survey cost only $44,377 (more than $3.4 billion in today’s dollars) and results were submitted directly to President George Washington for immediate publication. 

While the only information required by the Constitution was the overall number of persons, the first census asked for the name of the head of the household and the number of people in the household.  People were placed in one of five categories:

  • free White males age 16 and over;
  • free White males under age 16;
  • free White females;
  • other free persons; and
  • slaves.

The categories were chosen based on two considerations: a desire to assess the nation’s human capital for industry and military needs, and the need to separate enslaved and free persons for population counts according to the Three-Fifths Compromise of representation.  In this agreement, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of a district’s political representation even though slaves themselves were denied voting rights.  This arrangement granted the slaveholding Southern states an advantage in congressional representation that increased the power of White slaveholders.

According to the Three-Fifths Compromise, the first census counts resulted in the allotment of 47 seats in the House of Representatives to Southern states, whereas a population count of only enfranchised persons would have apportioned only 33 seats to slaveholding states.  This disparity continued until after the Civil War, with slaveholding states granted 76 seats instead of 59 in 1812 and 98 seats instead of 73 in 1833.

While the Three-Fifths Compromise has long since been invalidated, census data is still used to determine voting representation in the House of Representatives and the distribution of federal funding for services like education, housing, and transportation.