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.

NEXT: 7 Race-Neutral Solutions to Racially Skewed Law Enforcement

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  1. The constitutional justification for a census is to re-apportion the house of representatives. So the only constitutional question is “how many people live at this address?”.
    All the rest of the intrusion amounts to a lazy legislature refusing to actually shovel out the money themselves, and a federally mandated consumer survey for businesses. And the legislature “adjusts” the numbers anyway, so why bother.

    1. And you can eliminate that rationalization by having every House rep proxy however many votes were cast in the last election. Yes, it’s not a count of residents, but I’d argue it’s a better count, and for the politicians who claim they want to increase voter turnout, it’s a better incentive than a bunch of political ads.

      I would go further. Have each House rep only proxy the votes he himself received in the election; elect the three highest vote winners; and allow all voters to also submit a volunteer application, one of which would be chosen at random as a fourth representative who would proxy all votes other than the three main winners.

      That would shake things up!

      1. My last pay check was $8750 just ecom working 12 hours for every week. My neighbor have found the estimation of $15k for a long time and she works around 20 hours for seven days. VDs I can not trust how direct it was once I tried it information…… Click here

      2. Electing 3 per district plus a fourth proxy would quadruple the size of the House. 435 is already too large.

  2. While you are discussing the census, you should also mention Herman Hollerith. Most introductory computer courses will note that Hollerith developed the card reader for the 1890 census and that the card reader would go on to become a standard method to enter data in early computers.

    1. A interesting side note is that Hollerith repurposed bank note counting machinery, so Hollerith punched cards were the same size as currency back then. The size was reduced to the modern size by FDR, possibly because he dropped the gold standard and wanted the old notes more readily identified so they could be taken out of service and replaced by the bills which made no promises of convertibility to gold.

    2. It’s also how Reason authors submit their articles.

  3. I live in rural California, which will go Democrat in any election, usually with an urban progressive bent. If I don’t reply to the census, then California might have fewer Representatives and Electoral College votes.
    People from Nebraska or Idaho are much closer to my view of the world. Their Representatives represent me better anyway.

    1. Interesting concept for someone such as myself, being a non-progressive in Massachusetts.

  4. The Ingenious Musings Of An Anti-Social Culture War Casualty

  5. The census reveals all sorts of falsehoods. I researched one guy who, in the 1930s, claimed to have participated in and been wounded in Pickett’s Charge. But census after census showed he was born in 1852. I kind of doubt the Rebs allowed 11 year old boys from Philadelphia to serve in the First Virginia Regiment.

    1. There were a lot of young drummer boys. He might have been telling the truth.

      1. No, he was gaslighting real veterans and borrowing some of the exploits of his older cousin who was a Union cavalry officer.

  6. According to the Bible (2 Samuel 24, I think it’s also in Chronicles somewhere), censuses cause epidemics.

    And now we just happen to have this Coronavirus during a census year?

    Why haven’t I heard any of the fundamentalist types ranting about this?

    1. Shhh…

    2. As a fundamentalist, I can answer this! Us NOT numbering all of our people, is a little “nit” thing, compared to the BIG command, which is to KILL all of our people! And numbering them all, knowing where they live, helps get the job done, when time comes to KILL them all! And THAT is PRECISELY what the literally-interpreted, infallible Word of God tells us!

      God COMMANDS us to kill EVERYONE!

      Our that them thar VALUES of society outta come from that them thar HOLY BIBLE, and if ya read it right, it actually says that God wants us to KILL EVERYBODY!!! Follow me through now: No one is righteous, NONE (Romans 3:10). Therefore, ALL must have done at least one thing bad, since they’d be righteous, had they never done anything bad. Well, maybe they haven’t actually DONE evil, maybe they THOUGHT something bad (Matt. 5:28, thoughts can be sins). In any case, they must’ve broken SOME commandment, in thinking or acting, or else they’d be righteous. James 2:10 tells us that if we’ve broken ANY commandment, we broke them ALL. Now we can’t weasel out of this by saying that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament, because Christ said that he’s come to fulfill the old law, not to destroy it (Matt. 5:17). So we MUST conclude that all are guilty of everything. And the Old Testament lists many capital offenses! There’s working on Sunday. There’s also making sacrifices to, or worshipping, the wrong God (Exodus 22:20, Deut. 17:2-5), or even showing contempt for the Lord’s priests or judges (Deut. 17:12). All are guilty of everything, including the capital offenses. OK, so now we’re finally there… God’s Word COMMANDS us such that we’ve got to kill EVERYBODY!!!

      (I am still looking for that special exception clause for me & my friends & family… I am sure I will find it soon!)

  7. There is an Old Testament prohibition against counting the people, a restriction that lingered in Judeo-Christian cultures for centuries

    What? The book of Numbers is a census… while not the original name of the book, it literally numbers the people of Israel.

    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).

    Maybe I’m fudging the lines on “modern,” but the Domesday Book of 1086 talks about how much taxes to expect from the shire… it was a census…

  8. Ummm, Caesar decreed a census and Joseph had to take pregnant Mary to his hometown of Bethlehem. It was also a tax

  9. I was filling out the census and accidentally selected Korean as nationality at one point. This changed the text to Korean and I could not go back to english. I ended up just tabbing through to get done. No idea what I entered but figured it was good enough either way.

  10. “On April 1, the U.S. census no doubt caught some more… if you’re planning on revealing something on your form, expect your grandchildren to be able to find out.”

    Like what? Planning on going back in time?

  11. Correction: in the 1850 DADE County, GA census, the Doyle family’s occupation was, indeed, listed as “fucking”.

    My brother-in-law admits to descent from one of these sex workers so accuracy is not a problem. He had a genetic profile done to find his great-granddad’s ancestry and family. Libraries in a five-state region restrict this census microfilm to patrons over the age of 18.

    Most errors are due to interpretation of the census taker’s bad handwriting. The number of abstracts/transcripts with errors is astonishing. At one time, Ancestry.com had volunteers correcting transcripts of the 1940 census.

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