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US 1780s Census Found


A researcher at Kean University in New Jersey has stumbled upon a rare find. Buried in John Kean’s papers (for whom the university was named) was a ledger summarizing the population of the United States in the mid 1780s. According to the Kean ledger, the 1780s census was based on an “actual enumeration”. If true, then this is at least four years before the first official national census, which was held in 1790.

Although several states had conducted enumerations prior to 1790, this is the first reference ever found suggesting that an impromptu national census was ever conducted prior to the first official national census. It is possible that the Kean 1780s census is tied to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Constitutional Convention, which was held in Philadelphia in September 1787 (and also known as the Philadelphia Convention), specifically addressed problems in governing the US. One item up for discussion was the need to provide a more fair system of proportional representation.

It is possible that an impromptu national census was conducted prior to 1790 to provide delegates to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention with an idea of the existing populations of the various states. The Kean papers specifically allude to the fact that the 1780s census data was presented to the Constitutional Convention.

History buffs will be interested in knowing that the Kean 1780s census counts black slaves as three-fifths of a person and Native American Indians were itemized but not counted. This predates what was done in the official 1790 US census.

A common misperception is that the original US census was about counting people. Technically, this is not exactly true. Originally, the purpose of the US census was to count a) taxpayers and b) men of fighting age. An amendment to the Articles of Confederation was proposed in 1783 that said each colony should pay taxes to the federal government in proportion to their population. The Southern States opposed the amendment because of their large black slave populations. A compromise was eventually reached where black slaves were counted as three-fifths of person for official census purposes (to reduce the potential tax burden) and Indians were not counted at all because they generally did not pay taxes (see Top Ten Interesting Facts about the US Census). What irony.

The Kean 1780s census papers are expected to go on exhibit at Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey in the fall of 2010.

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