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The Census of 1880 by Henry Stone


The taking of the census of the United States is, at any time, an event of national interest and importance. That of the tenth census, in 1880, will be especially interesting, as marking the completion of the first century of our declared independence. We shall then ascertain, more fully and concisely than we have yet been able to do, exactly what progress has been made in one hundred years by a people left free to work out its own destiny, alike in form of government and in material, moral and intellectual development, under no check except its own self-imposed restraints. The record of such progress ought to be the most valuable contribution ever made to political, economic and social science. Whether it shall prove so or not depends chiefly on the manner in which the essential work is done. It is already time that public attention should be drawn to this important event, since the law under which the census is to be taken must, if it shall be at all adequate to the occasion, be passed by the present Congress.

The United States is the first nation which ever implanted in its Constitution a provision for taking at regular periods a census of its people. The makers of that instrument seemed to have an intuitive sense of the importance of such a step, for they had no guide and borrowed from no precedent. It is true the fundamental law provides only for an enumeration of persons, but under the authority given to Congress to "provide for the general welfare" such laws have heretofore been passed as have rendered our census reports documents of inestimable value. It is doubtful if any people have ever taken so great pains to find out "how they are getting along," or have ever made so great and immediate use of that information. So marked is the fact that the Constitution requires a decennial census that a distinguished French writer on statistics declares, "The United States presents in its history a phenomenon which has no parallel. It is that of a people who instituted the statistics of their country on the very day when they formed their government, and who regulated in the same instrument the census of their citizens, their civil and political rights and the destinies of their country."

To understand the progressive steps by which our census has reached its present magnitude and importance a brief glance is necessary at the successive laws under which the enumeration has been made and the manner in which their results have been presented.

The first census was taken in 1790, under the act of March 1 of that year, and many of the worst features of that tentative experiment still remain to vex the soul of every one who desires a census which shall be in accord with the demands of science and the times. Then, as now, the United States marshals were designated to conduct the enumeration. They were authorized to employ as many assistants as might be needful, and each assistant was required, prior to making his return, to "cause a correct copy of the schedule, signed by himself, to be set up at two of the most public places within his division, there to remain for the inspection of all concerned." It is from this crude law that the mischievous custom is borrowed of having a copy of the census returns deposited with the county court clerk. As originally conducted, the system was harmless, since only the names of heads of families were given and only the number of persons constituting the family reported. The compensation was also based on the number of persons returned by the assistant marshals. The form of schedule was as follows:

Names of Heads of Families. Free White Males of 16 years and upwards, including heads of families. Free White Males under 16 years. Free White Females, including heads of families. All Other Free Persons. Slaves.

Such and so simple were the results sought at the first census, the enumeration for which was to commence on the 1st of August, 1790, and to close within nine months thereafter, and the returns were to be made to the President of the United States on or before September, 1, 1791. These results were published in an octavo pamphlet of fifty-two pages. No officer of the government seems to have had any supervision of the work of preparing it for the press. The returns were doubtless handed by the President to some clerk for compilation, and communicated to Congress along with other routine and miscellaneous documents accompanying the annual message.

The second census was taken under the act of February 28, 1800, and, like the first, was confined to an enumeration of the population under the care of the United States marshals, but the whole work was prosecuted under the direction of the Secretary of State. The number of facts to be returned was somewhat enlarged by further inquiries into the ages of the inhabitants: otherwise there was no substantial change.

The act providing for the taking of the third census was passed March 26, 1810, and was almost identical with that for the second census.

A great step in advance was, however, taken in the act of May 1, 1810, which imposed upon the marshals and their assistants the additional duty of taking, under direction of the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, an account of the manufacturing establishments and manufactures of the several districts, at an aggregate expense not exceeding thirty thousand dollars.

The only changes introduced into the act of March 14, 1820, for taking the fourth census, provided for a return of the number of males between sixteen and eighteen, the number of foreigners not naturalized, and the colored population by age and sex. The provisions for a return of manufactures were re-enacted, the results to be reported to the Secretary of State (J.Q. Adams). But these returns, like those of the third census, were of very slight value.

In the act of March 23, 1830, for taking the fifth census, provision is made for ascertaining the number of blind and deaf and dumb, and the returns of age and sex were required with greater fulness than before. The time for commencing the enumeration was changed from August 1 to June 1, and the work was to be completed in six instead of nine months. The return of manufactures required by the two preceding census laws was omitted.

The act of March 3, 1839, for the sixth census, differed very slightly from that for the fifth, except that returns were also required of the number of insane and idiotic, the number of Revolutionary pensioners, and of the manufacturing, agricultural and educational statistics. By an amendment adopted February 26, 1840, the time for completing the enumeration was reduced to five months from June 1, and, for the first time provision is made for special supervision of the work by requiring the appointment of a superintending clerk.

Thus it appears that down to the taking of the sixth census, in 1840, the chief object aimed at was the enumeration of the population. No effort was made to arrive at, or even approach, by any thorough and scientific process the great facts relating to our material progress and prosperity, or to supervise the publication of such returns as were required. But the report for that year shows a great advance over any preceding one both in quantity and quality of information. The decade then closing was one of great life and movement. The States west of the Alleghanies were rapidly filling up with immigrants, whose arrival was followed by speculations hitherto unknown. Fabulous wealth was speedily followed by utter bankruptcy. The railroad, the steamship and the telegraph foreshadowed the approaching revolution in methods of commerce and communication. A new life was dawning.

These commercial changes and social revolutions were continued with increasing intensity during the next decade. The great famine in Ireland sent us swarms of laborers. The Mexican war brought us California, and the discovery of gold there marked the beginning of a new era in our material condition. It was under the influence of these stimulating events that the seventh census was undertaken. To make such preparations that it should, to some extent, embody the spirit of the time and furnish us with a correct statement of our condition under the new impulses and burdens of the nation, an act was passed March 3, 1849, creating a census board, whose duty it should be to prepare, and cause to be printed, forms and schedules for the enumeration of the population, and also for collecting "such information as to mines, agriculture, commerce, manufactures, education and other topics as will exhibit a full view of the pursuits, industry, education and resources of the country; provided, the number of said inquiries, exclusive of enumeration, shall not exceed one hundred." On the same day the Department of the Interior was established, and all matters relating to the census were transferred to that department. The census board reported "an act for taking the seventh and subsequent censuses of the United States," which became a law May 23, 1850, and under that law the censuses of 1850, 1860 and 1870 were taken.

However far that law was an improvement upon either of those under which the preceding censuses were taken, it is now wholly inadequate—so much so, indeed, that the superintendent of the ninth census (1870) declared, "It is not possible for one who has had such painful occasion as the present superintendent to observe the workings of the census law of 1870 to characterize it otherwise than as clumsy, antiquated and barbarous. The machinery it provides is as unfit for use in the census of the United States in this day of advanced statistical science as the smooth-bore muzzle-loading 'queen's arm' of the Revolution would be for service against the repeating rifle of the present time." It includes many inquiries which are practically worthless, and excludes many vitally necessary to an understanding of our social and industrial condition. Thus the questions, "Has this season produced average crops?" "What crops are short?" "What are the average wages of a female domestic per week, without board?" "How much road-tax did you pay, and how?" may be of some interest, if regarded as conundrums, but are practically of as little value as the color of one's hair or the average number of hours one sleeps; while, as matters of fact, the answers to them have been so unsatisfactory that no attempt has ever been made to classify them, and in the census of 1870 they were discarded altogether, though still forming part of the law. Nor is the method required for ascertaining the facts relating to manufactures of any greater value. The inquiries are the same in regard to every kind of industry, whether the product be cloth, leather, iron or silver, and are confined solely to wages, kinds and quantities. No means are provided for ascertaining with skill and exactness the necessary details of the varied manufactures of the country. The schedules for agricultural returns are also the same for all sections—for cotton and sugar-cane in Maine, for maple-sugar and hops in Louisiana. These, however, are merely superficial defects, some of which might easily be remedied in the hands of a competent superintendent, as was the case with the census of 1870. The graver inherent defects are equally obvious, but not equally susceptible of remedy. Nothing short of a new law will accomplish that result.

In the first place, the officer designated to take the census is, in every point of view, objectionable. That officer is the United States marshal, originally selected, probably, for no better reason than that, as there was such an officer in every State whose services could be made available, it was better to use him than to create a new office. But neither the legitimate duties of his office nor the department to which he belongs justify such a selection. His duties are chiefly connected with violations of law, and he is necessarily associated in public opinion with the criminal side of life. A police-officer is not a good census-taker. Moreover, many of the States are divided into several marshalships from considerations which do not at all enter into the taking of the census. Thus, New York has three districts, the largest of which contains more than two and a quarter millions of inhabitants, while Florida has two districts, the smaller of which, but by far the more important so far as the legitimate duties of the marshal are concerned, contains scarcely six thousand inhabitants. Massachusetts is a district with over a million and a third of people: so is Arizona, with less than ten thousand.

Then the methods of payment are unfair, irrational and cumbersome. They bear no relation to the amount of work performed, are irregular in their operation, are obscure in their manner of calculation, and impose needless labor alike on the officer to be paid and the census office. To say that the square root of an area multiplied by the square root of the number of horses indicates the number of miles travelled in taking a census is as absurd as to say that the square root of the yards of cloth in a suit multiplied by the square root of the number of stitches taken to make the suit will give the length of the thread used. In its practical working in 1860 the result was to give to one assistant marshal a per diem of $1.66 and to another $31.32 for the same labor. A proposition which works out such a result may serve for a joke in negro minstrelsy: it will hardly be accepted as honest figuring by the recipient of the minimum pay.

But the greatest objection of all is to the schedules created by the law of 1850. The number of inquiries is limited by that law to one hundred, though why that number should be selected as the limit, except at haphazard, is a mystery. It is purely arbitrary, and in its practical working is mischievous. Statistical inquiries ought to be exhaustive, whether the questions asked are ten or ten thousand. To limit the number to one hundred requires the lumping together of incongruous facts or the entire omission of some of prime importance. Of what real value is the answer to the question, "Kind of motive-power?" in relation to manufactures unless other details are given? Yet only such questions can be asked where the margin is so narrow. In the census of Massachusetts for 1875, 304 inquiries were made, embracing 1337 topics; and so satisfactorily was the work done that out of a population of 1,651,912 only 43 persons were unaccounted for when the statistics of occupations were compiled; while in the United States census of 1870 the number thus unaccounted for exceeded 1,000,000. In Rhode Island no less than 561 inquiries were made in the census of 1875, and the result is the most complete census—not merely of persons, but of every kind of manufacture and production—yet taken in any State. The returns of cotton, woollen and iron manufactures show what can and ought to be done in that direction for the whole nation in 1880. They answer the requirements set forth by the superintendent of the census of 1870 by presenting "tables so full of technical information as to become the handbook of manufacturers."

By the side of the census reports for 1875 of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and even of the young State of Iowa, those of the United States hitherto published appear like incomplete, vague and childish efforts. For instance, in the census of Massachusetts for 1875, in the agricultural statistics, 140 different items are reported, exclusive of 10 included among "domestic products," but reckoned in the United States census among agricultural products. Of these 150 items, only 24 are reported in the United States census of 1870, although some of those omitted are from $1,500,000 to $5,000,000 in annual value. In the case of manufactures the defects are still more striking—ludicrously so but for the importance of the subject. By the schedules of 1850 the facts called for in regard to manufactures are simply these: number of establishments, horse-power, hands employed, capital, wages, materials, products. The 1 establishment which employed 3 hands and turned out $3000 worth of artificial eyes demanded and received exactly the same treatment with the 22,573 flouring- and grist-mills with their army of 58,448 workmen and $444,985,143 of products. On this Procrustean bed all are stretched or shrunken—the giant industries by which men are fed, clothed, housed and shod, with their 1,000,000 of men and $2,000,000,000 of products, and the pigmy occupations of making skewers, calcium-lights, mops, dusters, etc., employing 150 persons and aggregating $150,000 of products.

And this leads directly to a consideration of the measures necessary to secure a proper census of the United States in 1880. To begin with, as already reiterated, a new law is imperatively demanded: no good thing can come of the present statute. As early as possible during this present Congress a committee on the tenth census should be appointed, which should carefully study the laws and methods of every civilized state and country in which a census is taken, and from these collect whatever is best, giving at the same time ample power to the superintendent in all matters of administration and appointment. Such a law might be as short and simple as that of Rhode Island, which is comprised in eight brief sections, yet is so comprehensive that under its provisions was compiled the most complete census yet taken in this country, if not in the world.

The time at which the census is taken should be changed from June 1 to at least November 1, if not to January 1, when the labors of the year are ended, when the harvest has been gathered in, the books made up and the family naturally talk over the events of the past twelve-month. Then, if ever, is the time when full, frank and honest answers will be given, and the census-taker will be hailed rather as a friend than an enemy in disguise. The method adopted years ago in all other civilized countries, and in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in 1875, of leaving the blank schedules in advance at each house and manufactory, to be filled up carefully and thoughtfully, and to be called for on a given day, should also be adopted. The result of the first attempt in Massachusetts was that 37 per cent. of the schedules was found ready for delivery to the enumerator, and for the remaining 63 per cent. the labor was greatly diminished by the readiness of the people to answer all inquiries intelligently. The number who at first failed or refused to comply was only one hundred, and of manufacturers less than twenty; and these all subsequently made the necessary returns. The total answers of all kinds received at the census office was 13,000,000, at a cost to the State of one dollar for each hundred answers.

Under such a law, enacted by the present Congress, and by such methods, the census report of 1880 would become a document to which every good citizen could point with pride and congratulation. We should no longer be mortified with such errors and shortcomings as are so frankly commented on in the census report of 1870. We should have not merely a correct enumeration of the population, with all the important facts connected with their domestic and social condition, but also such a return of the occupations, manufacturing industries, education and commercial operations, and all the elements which go to make up the material well-being of the races on this portion of the continent, as would mark a new departure in our national life. The absurd inanities which characterize so much of the report of the superintendent of the census of 1860, and the doctrinaire theories injected into the report of 1850, ought never again to find expression in any public document bearing the official sanction of the United States.

The census report of 1860, as compared with that of 1870, is as the Serbonian bog to a well-appointed lawn. For the first time since its inception the taking of the census was in 1870 placed in thoroughly competent hands. By inherited ability, as well as by previous training, General Walker possesses in an eminent degree the qualities essential to the fitting and successful execution of such a task. At every step he shows the skill and readiness of a master workman; and it will be fortunate for the country if he shall be selected as superintendent of the tenth census under a law of his own devising.

As to the results to be revealed by the tenth census, it is not worth while to speculate. That they will be disappointing in many aspects to the national pride, or at least to the national vanity, there can be little doubt; but it is to be hoped we have outlived the period when the truth can make us angry. Of course there will be no such increase of population as marked our earlier career down to 1860, nor should we expect much increase in the reported wealth of the country since 1870. For the first time, except in the decade from 1820 to 1830, there will be no increase of area, unless all signs fail. Whatever the changes may be, they will more fully concern our social and political condition than in any previous decade, except perhaps the last.

An early and intelligent interest in this important subject is all that is requisite to secure the needed reform. It is not creditable to the country that the census of 1870 was taken under the provisions of the law of 1850: it will be disgraceful should that of 1880 be subjected to the same fate, as it must be unless a new law is passed before the first of January of that year. The matter should be pressed upon the attention of Congress during its present session. In 1870 an admirable law was passed by the House of Representatives under the skilful and intelligent leadership of Hon. James A. Garfield, but it failed in the Senate because of the apathy of some and the personal pique of others. It seems incredible that in that dignified body so little attention was paid to this vast subject. Again and again its consideration was postponed because a sufficient attendance could not be secured to act upon the proposed law, which at last fell to the ground, a victim to the indifference and prejudice of those who ought to have acted more wisely in a matter that so nearly concerns the welfare and good name of a great nation.

Henry Stone.