The First Census of the United States, 1790

Updated on February 3, 2020
Jule Romans profile image

Jule Romans has over 30 years of experience researching and writing on educational topics. She presently works in State Government.

A first census tally sheet
A first census tally sheet | Source

Why Did the Census Begin?

The idea for the census began with the inception of the United States itself. The census was always integral to United States Government.The census is a constitutional requirement, and has been since the beginning.

The Census is a Constitutional Mandate

Taking a census at regular intervals would be necessary to ensure adequate representation for each state. The census would also be necessary to determine taxation for each state.

Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution mandates that a census should be taken regularly. The purpose of the census was to:

...keep taxes and U.S House of Representative seats appropriately balanced with the population of each state.


Signatures on the first Census legislation.
Signatures on the first Census legislation. | Source

When Was the First Census Taken?

The first census was started in the summer of 1790. Final collation of results came much later in the year. According to the US Census History Website:

The first census in the United States took place beginning on August 2, 1790. Although it took months to collect all the data from households, census takers were instructed to collect information as of August 2.

George Washington and the Census

The first census was taken in 1790. It began a little more than a year after the inauguration of President George Washington. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson implemented the project. George Washington was considered the head of the first census.


The first census in the United States took place beginning on August 2, 1790.

— US Census History Website

How the First Census Was Conducted

The first census began approximately a year after President George Washington was inaugurated. The census work was implemented a short time before the end of the second session of the first Congress of the United States.

US Marshals Took the First Census in 1790

In 1790, responsibility for the census was assigned to all the marshals of each of the judicial districts int he United States. U.S. Marshals were expected to carry out the duties of taking the census within their jurisdictions.

The law required that every household be visited. Completed census schedules then were to be displayed for everyone to see.

The law insisted that public posting take place in:

...two of the most public places within [each jurisdiction], there to remain for the inspection of all concerned.

President George Washington Reviewed the First Census

The "aggregate amount of each description of persons" in each district was to be sent to the President for review.

This occurred, although President Washington disagreed with the final total of 3.6 million citizens. He thought the number should have been much higher.

1790 Census Results
1790 Census Results | Source

Who Was Counted in the First US Census?

The first census did not count everyone. In the 1790 census, there were only four questions. One question was a compound question, resulting in five essential pieces of information.

The 1790 census sought to determine the makeup of each household based on counting only:

  • Free White males of 16 years and upward
  • Free White males under 16 years
  • Free White females
  • All other free persons
  • Slaves

Free white females were not differentiated by age. Free persons who were not white were not differentiated by gender. Slaves were not differentiated by age or gender.

Records from the 1790 to 1870 censuses were public record and were not protected. In fact, U.S. marshals would post the records in a central place in communities for public viewing.

— US Census Bureau History

Explore the Records of the 1790 Census

Records from the First Census

The First Census of the United States (1790) contained an enumeration of the inhabitants of the present states of:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont and Virginia

All the schedules for each state were filed with the State Department. These included summaries for each of the counties within the states. In many cases, information on individual towns was included as well.

Census Records Destroyed in War of 1812

Records are not now complete, unfortunately The British burned the nation's capitol building in Washington during the War of 1812. The first census records were stored in that building.

In that fire, the returns for several states were destroyed. The states' records that were destroyed include Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia.

How to Process Records from the First Census

References

US Census Bureau Staff. "History." United States Census Bureau. Revised December 30, 2019. Accessed February 3, 2020. www.census.gov/history

© 2020 Jule Romans

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