The First U.S. Census: A Lot Has Changed in Our Nation Since 1790

Federal officials agreed that a census was necessary, but it has never been a straightforward process.

The first U.S. Census count begins on horseback

The first U.S. Census had its beginnings in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  Here, the delegates approved the text of Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution (later ratified by Congress and the states).  This section requires the federal government to conduct a census of everyone living in the United States every ten years.

On March 1, 1790, the decennial census became one of the “first actions Congress authorized the government to do,” according to Andrew Glass in an article for Politico. Thus, the first census count in U.S. history began on August 2, 1790, under the direction of the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson.

U.S. Marshalls supervised this massive project. Altogether, hundreds of courageous individuals, referred to as “enumerators,” journeyed throughout the young nation on horseback.  Their purpose was to find, question, and count every person living in the United States.  The goal of this first census was to determine our nation’s total population and understand precisely where they lived.

The first U.S. Census reflected American values in 1790

That first census asked only six questions to identify and count individuals.

  1. The name of the “householder” (a white male)
    Then the names of all other people in the household, in the following categories:
  2. White males (free) age 16 and older
  3. Free white females
  4. White males (free) who were under the age of 16
  5. All other free persons
  6. Slaves

According to Andrew Glass, this first census reflected the values of the United States in 1790.  The government counted slaves as only three-fifths of a person.  In fact, we didn’t count Native Americans at all until 1870.  The U.S. Census Bureau also acknowledges that the intention of getting a precise count of free white males was “to assess the country’s industrial and military potential.”

What were the results of the first U.S. Census?

When the enumerators completed their work, they had counted over 3.9 million people, in 18 months, at an overall cost of $45,000.  They went door-to-door through the 13 original states plus Maine, Vermont, Kentucky, and also Tennessee, which was known then as the Southwest Territory.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, both President George Washington and Thomas Jefferson expressed skepticism over the final count.  They expected the number to exceed the 3.9 million people counted in the census.  Nevertheless, the federal government used the results to apportion Congressional seats, determine electoral votes, and allocate funds for government programs.

Today, the work of the census has grown with the U.S. population

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that they will attempt to count approximately 330 million people living in the U.S.  In an article for, writer Jeffrey Mervis referred to the count as “the nation’s largest civilian exercise.”  That point would be difficult to argue.

The 2020 Census will cost approximately $12  billion to conduct.  It still provides data that the federal government uses to allocate over $800 billion in funds to the states and territories.   Not to mention that the census continues to determine representation for each state in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau plans to employ over 500,000 gig and part-time employees to conduct the census.  Thus, the Bureau will likely become the nation’s largest source of gig employment in 2020.

The 2020 Census is a historic opportunity

In truth, we also have a chance to be a part of history by participating in the first census we can complete 100% online.  I recently went online and answered the 12 questions in about 12 minutes.  Therefore, you can shape your future and that of your community by completing the 2020 Census right now.

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