From the Left



The 2020 U.S. Census: Historical Precedents and What Censuses Tell Us about Populations and Power, Past and Present: Part I

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Every 10 years, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the federal government conducts a national census. Earlier this month, the Bureau of the Census released the first detailed results stemming from the 2020 census, which gives a total count of 331,449,281 people and information about that population's racial and ethnic composition. Further details will roll out periodically over the next few months and years.

Censuses are invaluable sources for historians, social scientists and anyone interested in statistical information about a particular population and how it changes over time. A historian or social scientist's reading of a census, moreover, can also shed light on matters of political and social power. Understanding census categories and questions (who formulates them; how they change over time) is arguably as important as knowing the statistical results they produce.

Censuses date back to ancient Egypt, where populations were counted primarily for tax purposes. Romans later elaborated a complex system of enumeration -- the English word census comes from the Latin "censere," or "to estimate." The Roman state was particularly interested in knowing how many men were available to fight in war. The New Testament mentions one such census, which coincided with the birth of Jesus Christ.

The 2020 census is the 24th in the nation's history; the first one dates to 1790. Its origins and initial purposes were in sharp contrast with earlier ones from other countries. Not only did early U.S. censuses reflect the demographic realities of the new states, but also the worldview -- warts and all -- of the Founding Fathers who created them. Rather than being used for tax assessments, land confiscation or conscription, American censuses served the republican and democratic objectives of the new nation whose constitution prescribed that the apportionment of congressional seats for each state be based on population.

The first and subsequent censuses up to the Civil War mirrored the reality that while "all men are created equal," not all were counted equally. The so-called Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution meant that the 697,625 slaves enumerated in 1790 counted as 418,574 for electoral apportionment purposes. Southern states insisted on counting slaves but denied them the right to vote. America's native inhabitants, with very few exceptions, were ignored until 1860 and seldom counted prior to 1900.

America's early censuses included demographic categories deemed important by federal legislators and reflected the hierarchical and discriminatory nature of society. At the top of the hierarchy were free, white, male heads of household; Black slaves were pushed to the bottom.

Federal marshals who conducted the first census were instructed to disaggregate the white population by sex (males and females), and in the case of white males, for military purposes, by age (over and under 16). Age distinctions were not considered important enough among free white females, "all other persons," and slaves. Generally, only the names of free, white male heads of household appeared in census rolls; occasionally, so did those of white female widows and free people of color.


Because census information is generally presented and used only in numbers and percentages, we lose sight of the fact that those statistics are aggregations of real flesh-and-bone individuals. Let's look, for example, at the 1790 census results for the town of Stratford, Connecticut. Assistant marshal Samuel B. Sherwood counted 3,241 inhabitants from 548 different households. Among the heads of household was a man named Stiles Lewis, whose household included another white male over the age of 16, two males under 16, most likely his sons, seven females, presumably his wife and daughters, and one of Stratford's 98 slaves. Two lines down on the ledger, we see another head of household identified simply as "Toby (negro)," no last name, along with three others classified as "other free persons." Among the handful of white female heads of household, we see a "Hannah Hoyt (Wid.)" who lived with another female (unclear as to whether she was a daughter, a sister or any other woman or girl), and one anonymous slave (sex unknown).

With the passing of time, census categories were expanded and adjusted to better serve the statistical needs of government, society and industry. The second census, in 1800, divided the free white population, male and female, into five age brackets. The 1820 census began to break down "slaves" and "the free colored" into sex and age subcategories and opened a new category for non-naturalized foreigners.

Part II of this column takes us through the balance of the 19th century and the 20th century up to the 2020 census.


Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History." Readers can reach him at To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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