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Questions and Answers About the First Census of the United States in 1790

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

The first census of the United States took place in 1790. It counted free white males and collected limited information about females, nonwhites, and slaves. Conducted in August, the first census was considered public information.

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 US Census is a Constitutional mandate. The census is a constitutional requirement, and has been since the beginning.

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."

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.

When Was the First U.S. Census Taken?

The first census was started in the summer of 1790. Final collation of results came much later in the year.

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.

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."

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

Signatures on the first Census legislation.

Signatures on the first Census legislation.

How Was the First U.S. Census 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.

U.S. Marshals conducted the first census in 1790. In early 1790, responsibility for the census was assigned to all the marshals of each of the judicial districts in the United States. The U.S. Marshals were expected to carry out the duties of taking the census within their own jurisdictions.

The law required that every household be visited. Completed census schedules then were to be displayed for everyone to see. It was the legal direction that public posting take place in: "...two of the most public places within [each jurisdiction], there to remain for the inspection of all concerned."

The President of the United States was then charged with reviewing the census information. The "aggregate amount of each description of persons" in each district was to be sent to the President for review. This occurred in the first census of 1790, although President Washington disagreed with the final total of 3.6 million citizens. He thought the number should have been much higher.

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.

1790 Census Results

1790 Census Results

What Were the Questions on the First U.S. Census?

The first US census asked for the name of the head of the family for each household. It then requested to know how many “Free White” males over the age of 16 resided in the household. This was to assess the military potential and possible industrial strength of the country in 1790.After that, the census recorded the number of “Free White” males under the age of 16.

“Free White” females were counted next, followed by all other free persons. Finally, the census recorded the number of slaves in the household. All of these were recorded under the name of the head of household.

The questions would have all been organized under the name of the head of household, recorded in columns, as in the example above.

Who Was Counted in the First U.S. 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.

What Happened to the Records from the First Census?

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.

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

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 included Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia.

The records that still exist can be viewed in digital form on the website for the U.S. Census Bureau (Census.gov) under the publications tab.

Who actually took the first U.S. Census?

The first U.S. Census was taken under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, who was at that time the Secretary of State. US Marshalls were charged with the responsibility of visiting every household and asking the required questions.

Who was President during the first U.S. Census?

George Washington was President during the first U.S. Census.

How many people were in the first U.S. Census?

The final count in the 1790 Census was around 3.9 million. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were disappointed in this, and believed it to be far too low a number.

Did the first U.S. Census include slaves?

Yes. The last question asked by U.S. Marshals on the 1790 Census was to determine the number of slaves in a household.

References

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

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Jule Romans

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