The First U.S. Census (1790)

©Joe M. Newton


President George Washington signed into law the first Census Act of the United States of America on 1 March 1790. This law placed the responsibility for determining the manner in which the United State's first listing of its inhabitants was to be compiled upon the president. Historians are not sure exactly what method the president selected, many assume he delegated the responsibility to the marshalls of the various judicial Districts.

Specifically, the law required that the number of inhabitants of each county or District within the thirteen states be counted that the sex and color of the counted persons be indicated. Since Indians were not being taxed they were not to be included and a careful distinction was made between free inhabitants and slaves (including indentured servants bound to service for only a short period of time).

Compiling the census was a very difficult and dangerous task because vast areas of the country were still wilderness and even in the most heavily populated areas, transportation was primitive and unreliable. As a result, the information obtained by from the various Districts was not totally consistent in eitehr their content or form but are in general considered accurate and complete. Unfortunately, during the War of 1812, the British burned the U.S. Capitol and census data for many parts of the present states of Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia was destroyed.

The records which escaped destruction show the heads of all families living in the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. These records contain over 400,000 names. Therefore, based on the fact that each household contained six people, historians have estimated the population of the United States in 1790 at approximately 3,231,533.

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Joe M. Newton