Historical Context: The First National Census

Early in August 1790, David Howe, an assistant federal marshal, began the difficult task of counting all the people who lived in Hancock County, Maine. One of 650 federal census takers, charged with making "a...perfect enumeration...of all persons" in the United States, he began by writing down his own name followed by his wife's and child's. He then listed the names of all the other people who lived in his hometown of Penobscot and proceeded to criss-cross the Maine coast, recording the names of 9,549 residents. In March 1791, he submitted his findings: 2,436 free white males, 16 and older; 4,544 free white females; and 38 "other free persons" (including Peter Williams, "a black," and his wife and child).

The United States was the first nation in history to institute a periodic national census. Since 1790, the country has tried to count each woman, man, and child every ten years. The first census asked just six simple questions, yet when supplemented by other statistical information, it provides a treasure chest of information about the social and economic life of the American people. Taking the nation's first census was an extraordinarily difficult challenge. The nation's sheer physical size--stretching across 867,980 square miles--made it impossible to make an accurate count. Many people refused to speak to census takers; some because they feared that this was the first step toward enactment of new taxes, others because they felt that the Bible prohibited census taking. To make matters worse, census takers were abysmally paid, receiving just $1 for every 150 rural residents and $1 for every 300 city dwellers counted. Indeed, the pay was so low that one judge found it difficult to find "any person whatever" to take the census.

What was the United States like in 1790?

The population was quite small--only about a quarter the size of England's and just a sixth the size of France's. Just 3,929,214 people lived in the country, about half in the northern states, half in the South.

The population was also overwhelmingly rural. In a popular of nearly four million, only two cities had more than 25,000 residents and just 202,000 people lived in the 24 towns or cities with at least 2,500 inhabitants.

In 1790, the population remained clustered along the Atlantic coast. The center of population was located on Maryland's eastern shore, a few miles from the ocean.

By European standards, the American population was exceptionally diverse. A fifth of the entire population was African-American. Among whites, three-fifths were English in ancestry and another fifth was Scottish or Irish. The remainder was of German, Dutch, French, Swedish, or other background. The population was also extraordinarily youthful, with half of the people under the age of 16.

The economy was still quite undeveloped. There were fewer than 100 newspapers in the entire country; three banks (with total capital of less than $5 million); and three insurance companies. And yet, the United States was perched on the edge of an extraordinary decade of growth.

During the 1790s, the American population grew exceptionally rapidly, climbing over 20 percent to over five million in 1800. Population growth was particularly rapid in cities and in the West. The population of Kentucky and Tennessee grew nearly 300 percent in the 1790s, and by 1800, Kentucky had more people than five of the original 13 states.

American society also made tremendous economic advances. During the 1790s, states chartered almost ten times more corporations, banks, and transportation companies than during the 1780s. Cotton production rose from 3,000 bales to 73,000. The growth of foreign trade was particularly rapid, climbing from just $19 million in 1790 to $85 million in 1800. The number of patents issued rose from just three in 1790 to 44 in 1800.

In 1791, an English immigrant named Samuel Slater introduced the factory system into the United States in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Other factories erected in the 1790s produced iron, brass, paper, glass, firearms, nails, umbrellas, and hats. In 1790, a Connecticut Yankee named John Fitch started the first commercial steamship service connecting Philadelphia with Trenton, New Jersey.

In 1800, as in 1790, the United States remained a nation of farms, plantations, and small towns, of yeoman, slaves, and artisans. Nevertheless, the nation was undergoing far-reaching social and economic transformations. During the 1790s, the number of newspapers doubled. Between 1783 and 1800, Americans founded 17 new colleges and a large number of female academies. During the 1790s, 266 circulating libraries opened; New Hampshire and Kentucky founded new medical schools; and literary, historical, and philosophic societies, like the Massachusetts Historical Society organized in 1791, multiplied.

The transformations in the economy had far-reaching social implications. Older hierarchies and bonds of dependency broke down. Indentured servitude began to disappear. Servants became "help." Wealth became more unequally distributed. For the first time in American history, labor unions in American history. The gap between rich and poor widened.