A few days before leaving New York City, the first capital of the United States, Congress passed the First Census Act of 1790.
The Act echoed the Constitution, calling for an “actual Enumeration…within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”
This crucial legislation established the ground rules for the first census and empowered U.S. marshals to carry out the monumental task of accurately recording America’s population. It required the marshals to post the information in two public places for residents to make corrections before submission.
This practice ended with the 1850 census. Privacy and Confidentiality are now paramount. The Census Bureau is bound by Title 13 of the U.S. Code to keep your information confidential.
Carrying out the census in 1790 was difficult in a new country with little infrastructure and a widely scattered population. Each marshal received between $100 (equivalent to $2,793.20 in 2020) and $500 ($13,965.98 in 2020). Their assistants would receive $1 ($27.93 today) for every 50-300 people enumerated.
The census began on 2 Aug 1790, and officially ended 2 May 1791, but several states (Rhode Island, Vermont and South Carolina) and the Southwest Territory received extensions.
Despite the difficulties and challenges the U.S. marshals faced, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson put the first data tables in an official government document on 24 Oct 1791, and issued the final report in 1793, after South Carolina’s count was completed: The United States had a population of 3,929,214. The first official population count was a testament to the determination, intelligence and patriotism of the first U.S. marshals and their deputies.
Clement Biddle of Pennsylvania, a lawman, was a public servant for nearly three decades, returning eventually to his father’s shipping business. He formed militia units, fought in the American Revolution’s major battles and became a colonel and quartermaster general for the Pennsylvania militia.
He also sought numerous opportunities to increase his personal wealth and accepted President George Washington’s appointment to be Pennsylvania’s first U.S. marshal. Biddle deputized 32 people to serve as census takers and count Pennsylvania’s then population of 434,373.
Unlike early enumerators in other parts of the country, some of Biddle’s deputies, on their own or perhaps at the behest of Biddle, included some residents’ occupations in the survey. In doing so, Biddle’s deputies inadvertently established the precedent of collecting economic data as part of the census. Collecting economic data on a federal census form did not become standard practice until the 1810 census.
William Blount, Southwest Territory. He was not part of the U.S. Marshal Service but as governor of the Southwest Territory (present-day Tennessee), conducted the 1790 Census for the area. Blount was a veteran of the American Revolution and signatory of the U.S. Constitution.
Initially, then-Secretary of State Jefferson informed Blount “that [the census] act has not required it [the census to be taken] in your Territory, nor provided for any expense which might attend it.” However, Blount ordered his militia captains to act as enumerators and count the Southwest Territory’s population in an effort to advance the cause of statehood for the territory.
According to Blount’s 1790 returns, the Southwest Territory had a population of 35,691, which meant that it failed to meet the threshold of 60,000 people required for a territory to become a state. Undaunted, Blount continued to serve his fellow “Tennesseans” by creating the administrative groundwork essential for statehood, serving as one of Tennessee’s first U.S. senators (Aug 1796 – July 1797), and as speaker of Tennessee’s state Senate (1798 – 1799).
Philip Bradley, Connecticut. Having worked as a farmer, merchant, local politician and an officer in the Continental Army, Philip Bradley was the perfect candidate to serve as Connecticut’s first U.S. marshal. Bradley ensured that his deputies completed their census counts within the nine-month deadline established by Congress. Bradley reported that Connecticut then had a total population of 237,946.
Edward Carrington of Virginia was a veteran of the American Revolution, an experienced national politician and Virginia’s first U.S. marshal. He began the monumental task of ensuring that his 68 deputies counted Virginia’s 1790-91 population in a timely manner. Unfortunately, the 1790 Census schedules (handwritten information sheets recorded by enumerators) for Virginia were destroyed when the British burned Washington, D.C., in 1814. As a result, there are few details of the actual enumeration process but the final report shows that Carrington and his deputies completed their enumeration by 24 Oct 1791, and that Virginia was then the largest state, with a population of 747,610.
Almost three years after overseeing the enumeration of Virginia’s population, Carrington retired from public service and lived as a private citizen for the remainder of his life, with a few noteworthy exceptions: He served as the foreman of the jury that acquitted Aaron Burr during his treason trial.