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With the Census Approaching, a Look at Its History and Lore | Press "Enter" to skip to content

With the Census Approaching, a Look at Its History and Lore

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This article is part of our latest special report on Museums, which focuses on the intersection of art and politics.

In the five minutes or so it will typically take to read this article, the population of the United States will have grown by about 13 people. This gives you an idea of the moving target the government faces when Americans participate in the nation’s 24th decennial census on April 1.

Once the count is completed, those raw numbers are elaborately massaged. People who could not be found but are believed to have existed at an address on April 1 are guesstimated, along with their age, gender, race and ethnicity, falsely imbuing the official final figures with a patina of precision.

Even in 1790, with a much smaller population, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson confided that the census was “supplied by conjecture” and merely “very near the truth.”

“The People Count: The Census in the Making of America” at the New-York Historical Society through June 7 explores why this laborious and costly process (roughly $16 billion in federal spending alone) was no easier — or more accurate — when it began in 1790 and why, with all its ambiguities, it remains so vital.

The exhibition explores how the founders preserved the fragile Union by originally forging a compromise over slavery — only to have to revisit their formula periodically in Congress as the nation expanded westward and, finally, after the Civil War.

It also examines how Horace Greeley, founder of The New York Tribune in 1841, and his “Go West” mantra helped shift political predominance West and South, though smaller states still retain disproportionate power in the Senate and the Electoral College.

And it takes a look at how the size and social and economic characteristics of the population in states and localities would ultimately determine the disbursement of about $1.5 trillion in annual federal spending.

The Historical Society is celebrating democracy this year through several other special exhibitions: “Meet the Presidents” includes a Ronald Reagan-era replica of the Oval Office and explores how the role of chief executive has evolved; “Women March” marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment granting women’s suffrage; and “Colonists, Citizens, Constitutions: Creating the American Republic” recalls the contribution of state charters.

“The People Count,” which features 30 books and manuscripts from the David M. Rubenstein Americana Collection, is but one of many census-inspired collaborations nationwide.

In San Francisco, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts encourages civic engagement with “Come to Your Census: Who Counts in America?” on view through July 31.

Statistics are creatively humanized in “Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers,” available through the summer at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibition includes a recorded interview with Joseph J. Salvo, the city’s chief demographer, and a facsimile of a page from the nation’s first census, taken in New York City, then serving as the capital. It lists Aaron Burr and his family.

Congress, meeting in 1790 in New York City at what is now the site of Federal Hall, empowered United States marshals to visit every household and tally the occupants. That census became the first regular count by any country to apportion power in a representative government rather than to calculate taxes, conscript for the military, or allocate human and natural resources.

“Being counted in the census,” says David Rubenstein, the philanthropist who is also the author of “The American Story: Interviews with Master Historians,” “is the companion act of voting.”

“The People Count” traces the nation’s growth from the first census, which took 18 months and counted 3.9 million people (white landowners, their families and relatives and indentured servants). It then takes us to 1860, when nearly four million slaves were included and Native Americans were counted for the first time; 1870, when the census no longer enumerated slaves as a separate category; 1880, when, for the first time, more Americans were living beyond the boundaries of the original 13 states than within them; and 1890, when the counting was conducted with a rudimentary computer system.

“The People Count” vividly evokes the impact of race in America from the nation’s very beginning and explores why some people counted less than others.

Ever wonder why seven of the 15 presidents before Abraham Lincoln came from Virginia? Slaves were ineligible to vote, but among the many compromises — or betrayals — agreed to by the founders, the South got to count each of them as three-fifths of a white person for purposes of representation. That formula gave Southern states 47 of the 105 congressmen after 1790. By one estimate, not counting slaves at all would have given the South only 33.

“To see that the census was created in a way that counted and didn’t count African-Americans — what could make that point about more real, more stinging, more challenging?” said Louise Mirrer, the president and chief executive of the historical society.

The timely exhibition has been curated by Mazy Boroujerdi, adviser to the David M. Rubenstein Americana Collection; Michael Ryan, vice president of the New-York Historical Society; and Sue Ann Weinberg, director of the society’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.

Among the artifacts on display are a printed copy of the first returns to the 1790 census, signed by Thomas Jefferson; documents relating to the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed Southern states to capture escapees in the North; and a copy of Scientific American magazine from 1890 explaining how a punched card tabulator tallied 62.9 million returns.

Between 1790 and 1800, when census returns could take eight days to travel between New York and Washington, the nation’s population expanded by about 1.4 million, to 5.3 million.

This year, most responses will reach data centers instantaneously. For the first time, most Americans are being asked to answer the census online. With the nation adding one person every 24 seconds on average, the population since 2010 will probably have increased by more than 20 million, to some 330 million.

As the exhibition demonstrates, one constant charted by the census is change in a nation whose evolving diversity engenders new challenges. Among them, a population that is aging. Another is redefining what it means to be an American: Smith remains the most popular surname, but by one estimate Garcia, Rodriguez and Martinez edged into the top 10, with Hernandez, Lopez and Gonzalez not far behind, while Patel and Chen registered the largest increases.

“I think there’s something really powerful for most people about numbers and understanding what the census was used for initially and how it evolved,” Dr. Mirrer said. “It’s an expression of American history.”


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