During Colonial times a number of censuses were taken, but they were small and local. It was not until the U.S. Constitution that the first large-scale census was taken. Article 1, Section 2, sets up the House of Representatives and reads in part:
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifts of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. “
This was the foundation of our current census system. The United States was the first country to require a regular enumeration of inhabitants. The Constitution went into effect in June 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it. The first Congress met from March 4, 1789 to March 4, 1791, and the enumeration began in August 1790. This first census had only five questions:
- Free White males of 16 years and upwards
- Free White males under 16 years
- Free White females
- All other free persons
As Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson was responsible for overseeing the taking of this first census. Enumerators had to provide their own paper, a tradition that would remain until 1830 when the first printed forms were finally provided. The total population in 1790 was 3,929,214 and cost $44,377.28.
By the 1940 census (the last publicly available census at the present time), the population had increased to 132,164,569, almost thirty-four times higher. The cost, however was more than fifteen hundred times higher: increasing to $67,527,000.
The population schedules included thirty-four questions. Two people (who randomly appeared on lines 14 and 29 of the schedule) were asked an additional sixteen questions. This was the largest number of questions of any publicly available census to date. It was not until the census of 2000 that more questions were asked (53 were asked that year). Censuses are released to the public seventy-two years after the enumeration. The 1950 census will not be released to the public until 2022.
Mocavo is pleased to have the census indexes for the 1790 through 1940 censuses available to the public for searching, part of our free forever campaign. For more information about the census, visit the Census Bureau’s website. You can search the entire set of census indexes for free on Mocavo.