The Double Lives Hidden in the Census

Strange stories from the history of head counts


The Sum of the People: How the Census Has Shaped Nations, From the Ancient World to the Modern Age, by Andrew Whitby, Basic Books, 368 pages, $30

The census is almost as old as the state itself: Leaders have long wanted to know how many people they can tax and how many men they can call up for military service. But as the economist Andrew Whitby details in The Sum of the People, attitudes toward such head counts vary widely from one culture to another. There is an Old Testament prohibition against counting the people, a restriction that lingered in Judeo-Christian cultures for centuries. The first modern census, Whitby argues, was an effort in 1703 to count the residents of Iceland (then a Danish colony with a small and starving population).

Censuses can also have benign, practical purposes, unrelated to taxes or conscription. They can be used to determine political representation, as is the case in the United States. Disaster preparedness is easier if you know how many people are likely to be hit by a bomb or a flood. Infrastructure planners want to gauge how many people will need to use a road or a transit system. There have even been times when a census has been a defense against state overreach. People can use them to prove property rights—for instance, as evidence of time in residence when making a claim for adverse possession. In the case of tribal rolls (another kind of census), people can use them to prove their membership in a particular group.

But over the ages, people have had good reasons to worry about the government knowing too much about them. Censuses are useful for the panopticonic state. For the individual, they're an odder proposition.

Some of Whitby's work focuses on the ongoing issue of precisely what questions a census should ask and how the tally should be tabulated. As a data scientist, he is attracted to the history of the apparatus of census collecting. Indexing census data helped bring about the development of early computer systems.

In the West, of course, the census is just one of a range of many forms of state surveillance. Other data, such as birth, death, and immigration records, have all been formalized and centralized, like a pincer movement to trap citizens on the page in perpetuity. Indeed, most developed nations could probably skip a formal census process if they had to. Between birth records, school enrollments, immigration files, and tax returns, the government arguably has enough information to figure out the population. (Nongovernmental sources, such as Facebook and Amazon, may well have an even more accurate pinpoint survey of the population on the ground.)

Whitby dates this surveillance apparatus to the early 20th century and the expansion of the welfare state. But in fact it began much earlier. The 1836 Act for the Registering of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in England brought this system firmly into the hands of the state—partly as a response to the growth of various nonconforming Protestant churches, which meant many baptisms were no longer recorded in the main (Anglican) parish register. The government wanted to get a handle on a population experiencing explosive growth.

In the U.S., compulsory birth registration was less centralized, so the census became the federal government's main population survey. Every decade saw greater efforts to improve collection and recording. But people being what we are, anomalies continued to occur.

The 1850 census, for example, showed four women in Dodd County, Georgia, with an occupation of "fucking." Before we think this was some gesture of defiance, a group of social rebels sticking it to the man by writing this on a form, we must remember that they did not complete the return themselves. The enumerator was likely expressing his own biases, and it's unlikely that the women he was describing ever even knew about his snide comment. Enumerators' opinions slid into census data for decades in more subtle ways, as when race was recorded based on the census taker's judgment.

Even when we moved to self-reporting, people could still evade the census or be less than truthful. Historians are familiar with individuals whose ages or places of birth shift from one census to the next. Sometimes the reason may be accidental—say, a spouse or other household member misremembering a birthdate when the census collector knocked on the door. Other times it is a moment of deliberate self-reinvention, caught in time.

The historian Martha Sandweiss revealed the story of Clarence King's double life in her 2009 book Passing Strange. King, who was white, married an African-American woman under an assumed name and claimed to be black. Thus Clarence King, the famous white geologist, was also recorded in the 1900 census as James Todd, the black Pullman porter. One wonders how many other double lives are caught in those records, of bigamous marriages, say, or false identities.

On April 1, the U.S. census no doubt caught some more. Returns are released to the public after 72 years, so if you're planning on revealing something on your form, expect your grandchildren to be able to find out.