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Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Actual Enumeration

Second to my beloved Post Office, I really love the constitutionl provision that provides for our decennial census.  President Washington signed the first act enabling enumeration of Americans on March 1, 1790.  Naturally there was debate about how best to go about the mandate, whether there'd be enough time to complete everything, etc.

James Madison observed on January 25:

[T]hey had now an opportunity of obtaining the most useful information for those who should hereafter be called upon to legislate for their country if this bill was extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants; it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community. In order to know the various interests of the United States, it was necessary that the description of the several classes into which the community was divided, should be accurately known; on this knowledge the legislature might proceed to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial and manufacturing interests, but without it they could never make their provisions in due proportion.

This kind of information, he observed, all legislatures had wished for; but this kind of information had never been obtained in any country. He wished, therefore, to avail himself of the present opportunity of accomplishing so valuable a purpose. If the plan was pursued in taking every future census, it would give them an opportunity of marking the progress of the society, and distinguishing the growth of every interest. This would furnish ground for many useful calculations, and at the same time answer the purpose of a check on the officers who were employed to make the enumeration, forasmuch as the aggregate number was divided into parts, any imposition might be discovered with proportionable ease. If these ideas met the approbation of the house, he hoped they would pass over the schedule in the second clause of the bill, and he would endeavor to prepare something to accomplish this object.

The following day he presented a plan:

...which he moved should be inserted in lieu of that annexed to the bill, viz.

Free white males, under 16; free white males, above 16; white females, free blacks, and slaves, the heads of families, &c.

And he likewise proposed that a particular schedule should be included in the bill, specifying the number of persons employed in different professions and arts, carried on within the United States; such as merchants, mechanics, manufacturers, &c. &c.

There was debate on Groundhog Day:

Mr. Livermore apprehended this plan was too extensive to be carried into operation, and divided the people into classes too minute to be readily ascertained.

For example, many inhabitants of New Hampshire pursued two, three, or four occupations, but which was the principal one depended upon the season of the year, or some other adventitious circumstance; some followed weaving in the spring and summer, but the making of shoes was the most predominant in the fair and winter; under what class are these people to be thrown, especially if they joined husbandry and carpenter's work to the rest? He was confident the distinction which the gentleman wished to make could not be performed; he was therefore against adding additional labor, and consequently, incurring additional expense, whether the work was executed or not.

Besides this, he apprehended it would excite the jealousy of the people; they would suspect that Government was so particular, in order to learn their ability to bear the burthen of direct or other taxes, and under this idea, they may refuse to give the officer such a particular account as the law requires, by which means you expose him to great inconvenience and delay in the performance of his duty.

Mr. Sedgwick understood, when the bill was recommitted, it was intended to specify every class of citizens, into which the community was divided, in order to ascertain the actual state of the society. Now, he had to ask, why it was not extended further? He thought the learned professions should be returned, as well as the others, and would furnish as grateful information as the return of any other. The state of society could be ascertained, perhaps, in some decree, from observing these proportions.

Mr. Madison.—If the object to bp attained by this particular enumeration be as important in the judgment of this House, as it appears to my mind, they will not sutler a small defect in the plan to defeat the whole. And I am very sensible, Mr. Speaker, that there will be more difficulty attendant on the taking the census,in the way required by the constitution, and which we are obliged to perform, than there will be in the additional trouble of making all the distinctions contemplated in the bill. The classes of people most troublesome to enumerate, in this schedule, are happily those resident in large towns, as the greatest number of artisans live in populous cities and compact settlements, where distinctions are made with great ease.

I take it, sir, that in order to accommodate our laws to the real situation of our constituents, we ought to be acquainted with that situation. It may be impossible to ascertain it as far as I wish; but we may ascertain it so far as to be extremely useful, when we come to pass laws, affecting any particular description of people.

If gentlemen have any doubts with respect to its utility, I cannot satisfy them in a better manner, than by referring them to the debates which took place upon the bills intended collaterally to benefit the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing parts of the community. Did they not wish then to know the relative proportion of each, and the exact number of every division, in order that they might rest their arguments on facts, instead of assertions and conjectures?

Will any gentleman pretend to doubt but our regulations would have been better accommodated to the real state of the society than they are? If our decisions had been influenced by actual returns would they not have been varied, according as the one ude or the other was more or less numerous? We should have given less encouragement in some instances, and more in others; but in everv instance, we should have proceeded with more light and satisfaction.

The gentleman from Massachusetts, (Mr. Sedgwick) has asked, why the learned professions were not included: I have no objection to giving a column to the general body. I think the work would be rendered more complete by the addition, and if the decision of such a motion turned upon my voice, they shall beadded. But it may nevertheless be o&served, that in such a character they can never be objects of legislative attention or cognizance.

As to those who are employed in teaching and inculcating the duties of religion there may be some indelicacy in singling them out, as the General Government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this; in ascertaining who, and who are not ministers of the Gospel. Conceiving the extension of the plan to be useful, and not difficult, I hope it may meet the ready concurrence of this House.

Mr. Page thought this particular method of describing the people, would occasion an alarm among them: they would suppose the Government intended something, by putting the Union to this additional expense, beside gratifying an idle curiosity; their purposes cannot be supposed the same as the historian's or philosopher's —they are statesmen, and all their measures are suspected of policy. If he had not heard the object so well explained on this floor, as one of the people he might have been jealous of the attempt, and as it could serve no real purpose,for he contended, if they were now acquainted with the minutia, they would not be benefited by it. He hoped the business would be accomplished in gome other way.

Mr. Madison thought it was more likely, that the people would suppose the information was required for its true object, namely to know in what proportion to distribute the benefits resulting from an efficient General Government.

Ultimately between the House and Senate, the more specific enumerations were dropped, but they did provide for greater distinction between classes of persons than merely opting for a raw count of Americans.  And over the years different kinds of data were gathered to better understand our growing and changing nation so as to be more effective, as James Madison thought we should.

Something for the Ron Pauls of the world to remember.


March 1, 2014 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink


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I head a possibly apocryphal story that Ben Franklin was consulted by Congress for the first Census, and suggested:

"That we start with ONE, and then proceed to TWO, THREE, and so forth"

Posted by: Snarki, child of Loki | Mar 1, 2014 6:51:19 PM

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