Inside the U.S. Census Bureau: Part 1: History and Context

About the United States Census Bureau, a history and historical context from ancient to modern times.

Inside the Census Bureau: 1, 2, 3, 4 . . . and Counting . . .

How did it all begin? One of the earliest census reports was made in Babylonia in 3800 B.C. Revenues there were dependent upon the proper determination of who should pay taxes. In Egypt, for the next 1,300 years, population counts were also made. During the rule of Ramses II (1292-1225 B.C.), complete registration of heads of households and their families took place in order to divide the land for cultivation, to tax, and to provide manpower for public works projects. With the coming of the Roman in the 1st century B.C., the Egyptian census was taken over by an appointed "censor," who chiefly handled the official registration of all citizens. The biblical phrase of Luke 2:1, "all the world should be taxed . . ." referred to the Hebrew practice of returning to one's legal residence to be counted for purposes of taxation.

In England, William the Conqueror began that country's exposure to the census with the Domesday Book, which was compiled in 1085-1086. Every landowner was called in to a hearing to answer, under oath, a long series of questions to identify his holdings. In the 15th to 17th centuries, the Tudor kings added a new reason for counting the people: to provide a ready pool for army replacements during the continuous fighting in western Europe.

A Parliamentary bill to authorize a regular census met defeat in 1753. Its opponents felt that the information gathered publicly would reveal the country's weaknesses to its enemies. In 1800, another measure was offered and this time it passed, setting up the 1st general enumeration for Great Britain. The change in attitude was partially credited to the theories proposed by Malthus in 1798, in which he questioned the assumption that a country should encourage population growth. The Census Act of 1800 echoed the point that, in times where subsistence was a prime problem for the State to consider, ". . . it is surely important to know the demand for which we are to supply."

The 1st U.S. Census, that of 1790, was undertaken for the same general purpose: to provide guidelines whereby the Government could meet the specific needs of the community. The specific reason for this census was political--to apportion representation for the States in the Congress. The 18 counts made in the "o" years since have been used to solve problems where meaningful statistics are of importance.

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