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Beyond Numbers: A History of the U.S. Census

To mark the culmination of Census 2010, we explore the fascinating story of how Americans have counted themselves.

B. Balogh: If you were among the 74 percent of Americans who did fill out and mail back their form last year, you know that it was a relatively straightforward process.  Ten questions, many of which have been there since the very first census back in 1790.  But over the years, the form has changed in significant ways. Today on the show, we’re going to explore how those changes on the decennial census form reflect profound shifts in our understandings of what it has meant to be an American.  We’ll start at the very beginning of the story.

Tape (Reading from the US Constitution): Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this union according to their respective Numbers, which will be . . .

P. Onuf: This, of course, is the section of the U.S. Constitution that established the House of Representatives, and though it may sound ho-hum to you now, the idea of basing a system of government on an actual nose count was utterly groundbreaking back in 1787.

Tape (Michael Quinn): Unfortunately, the common association with a census was all negative.

P. Onuf: That’s Michael Quinn, the director of Montpelier, James Madison’s historic home here in Central Virginia.  James Madison, you will remember, was our fourth president, but he was also the main author of the Constitution.

Tape (Michael Quinn): Why would government want to count people? Well, usually there are two reasons.  They either want to take more of their wealth so they want to find out who you are and where you live, or else they want to draft people for an army, which means they’re going to conscript your young men.

P. Onuf: In 1787, conscripting young men wasn’t really at the top of the founders’ to-do list, but taking people’s wealth, well, it’s fair to say, it was.  They were keenly aware that if the young nation was going to survive, the central government would need to figure out a way to fund itself.  The genius of Article One was that by tying both taxation and representation to that nose count, it assured that citizens wouldn’t try to shirk their fiscal responsibilities by laying low when the nose-counter came around.  They had an incentive to stand up, and be counted.

Tape (Michael Quinn): And that is classic Madisonian thinking.  Madison again and again said you should never trust anyone.  Now, at the same time he never gave up.  What he realized the need for was to have counterbalancing forces, motivations.

P. Onuf: Well, if you think that’s good, well, it gets better.  Because not only did the founders create a legislative body that would truly reflect the shape of its constituency, they also made sure that it would continue to do so on into the future.

Tape (Reading from the US Constitution): 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 of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

Tape (Michael Quinn): They recognized how quickly the country was growing and how rapidly it was changing.  They anticipated people moving west.  So they talked about the fact that if we set forever once and for all how we are represented in Congress here at this Constitutional Convention, that will be an unjust distribution of power in 10, 20, 30 years, so they came to the conclusion that if we count the people, then we always, we’re literally building in a revolution every ten years in the American system because we will reapportion the number of representatives in Congress and that ended up stripping power over time from very powerful states at the beginning and they did it in a very peaceful manner.