This section provides background information on the history of census-taking in the United States, from the first census in 1790 to the complex computerized operation of 1970.
Why a Census
Websters defines a census as a periodic governmental enumeration of population, the common conception of census-taking. Actually, a census can be a count of any class of identifiable entities--business establishments, housing units, farms, governments themselves, as well as people. Consequently, censuses are one of the most important means for a society to find out about itself. In the western world, census-taking goes back to ancient Rome. In the United States, census-taking goes back to the early seventeenth century, when the royal colony of Virginia conducted a census of population.1
Although other colonies carried out complete enumerations, the American Revolution set in motion a train of events necessitating a nationwide population census on a periodic basis. In order to form a more perfect Union, the States adopted the Constitution in 1787, the first article of which stipulates that:
Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within the Union, according to their respective Numbers. 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 often years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.
Over the decades, the scope of census activities in America grew to include many facets of the Nations life. Information from the censuses entered into important policy decisions and research and planning programs of all kinds.