Department of Statistics Unitmark
Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences

The History of the First American Census and the Constitutional Language on Censustaking: Report of a Workshop

Publication Date

July, 1999

Publication Type

Tech Report


Margo Anderson and Stephen E. Fienberg


On Friday November 13, and Saturday, November 14, 1998, with support from the Donner Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a workshop on the history of the First American Census in 1790. The workshop was attended by scholars with expertise in the history of statistics, the history of censustaking and early American history. The group considered the format, capacities, and impact of the First American (1790) Census. The questions that prompted the workshop on the 1790 census experience derive largely from contemporary issues of censustaking in America, and the conflict between congressional Republicans and the Clinton administration over the proper format for taking the 2000 census. The controversy emerged in 1996 and intensified in early 1998 when the U.S. House of Representatives sued the Clinton administration over its plan for the 2000 census.

The workshop addressed three primary issues:

  • 1. The first involved the intent of the framers of the Constitution in drafting the census clause, and in particular what was meant by an actual enumeration. Two related questions relate to the state of censustaking and the state of scientific sampling and statistical estimation in the 18th century.
  • 2. A second question involved exactly how the 1790 census was conducted, from the drafting of legislation in early 1790 to the first apportionment of Congress in April 1792.
  • 3. A third question involved how the Washington administration, Congress, and later observers evaluated the 1790 experience, particularly as that experience affected censuses in the early 19th century.