Beyond Numbers

A History of the U.S. Census

To mark the culmination of Census 2010,

BackStory takes on the fascinating story of how Americans have counted themselves throughout our nation’s history. As it turns out, the idea of doling out power based on the actual number of people in a region was an American innovation. The Backstory hosts explain what was so revolutionary about the concept in 1787, and explore how assumptions about who counts as an American have shifted over time. They also look at the reasons the “undercount” became such an important issue in the 20th century, and consider the ways Americans’ suspicion of government has posed a challenge to the work of the Census Bureau. Over the course of the hour, they are joined by a scholar, former Census workers, and listeners interested in exploring the invisible backbone of American democracy: the U.S. Census.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Full Episode Transcript

P. Onuf: From VFH Radio in Charlottesville, Virginia, this is “BackStory.”  [music]  The 2011 Census numbers are in and that means the Census Bureau can get onto its next project—figuring out how accurate those numbers really are.

Tape (Vincent Barabba): I think the Census Bureau is the only agency of government that not only willingly admits it makes a mistake but quite precisely estimates the extent to which it made that mistake.  [laughter]

E. Ayers: Now, if government self-criticism strikes you as a courageous, it’s nothing compared to the Founders’ idea for a census in the first place.

Tape (Michael Quinn): They came to the conclusion that if we count people we’re literally building in a revolution every 10 years.

B. Balogh: We’re the America Backstory hosts and today on the show we’re going beyond the numbers and taking on the census process itself.  We’ll hear from officials, scholars and a man who went from house to house taking the census at the end of the Great Depression.

E. Ayers: All that, and your calls, coming up on “BackStory.”  First, this news.  [music]

P. Onuf: This is “BackStory,” with us, the American Backstory hosts.  I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy.

E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century guy.

B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy.

[music ]

B. Balogh: Six shows into its first season on the air, the NBC show “The West Wing” took on a subject that it’s probably safe to say had never been treated on prime time television before.

Tape (Allison Janey, “CJ”): “Sam, I read my briefing book last night on the Commerce Bill regarding the Census and there’re certain parts of that I don’t quite understand.”

Tape (Rob Lowe, “Sam”): “I can help you out.  Which parts?”

Tape (Allison Janey, “CJ”): “Well, all of it.”

Tape (Rob Lowe, “Sam”): “All of it?”

Tape (Allison Janey, “CJ”): “Yes.”

B. Balogh: That’s CJ, the presidential press secretary character, who finally admits to her deputy, Sam, that she’s been faking her way through all of the press briefings on the census bill.

Tape (Allison Janney, “CJ”): “I’ve been playing fast and loose, there’s no doubt about it, but sitting in on some of the meetings we’ve been having and reading the briefing book last night, I have to say that the census is starting to sound to me like it’s, well, important.”

E. Ayers: Important or not, the actor playing CJ—her name is Allison Janney—later told the PBS “News Hour” that she was stunned to learn that producer Aaron Sorkin had written a show about the census.

Tape (Allison Janney, “CJ”):  “I thought Aaron was crazy.  I read that and I was like, well, this is going to be the most boring thing ever.”

E. Ayers: Which, in essence, was our reaction when our producer suggested we devote an entire show to the census.  And we’re academic historians, with a high boredom threshold.   [laughter]  But then we got to talking about it, and it quickly became clear to us—as it did to Allison Janney before us—how much of what’s important in American history comes back to, you guessed it, the census.

Tape (Allison Janney, “CJ”): Now, I can guarantee you that everyone who saw that show is going to fill out their census.

B. Balogh: If you were among the 74 percent of Americans who did fill out and mail back their form last year, you know that it was a relatively straightforward process.  Ten questions, many of which have been there since the very first census back in 1790.  But over the years, the form has changed in significant ways. Today on the show, we’re going to explore how those changes on the decennial census form reflect profound shifts in our understandings of what it has meant to be an American.  We’ll start at the very beginning of the story.   [music]

Tape (Reading from the US Constitution): Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this union according to their respective Numbers, which will be . . .

P. Onuf: This, of course, is the section of the U.S. Constitution that established the House of Representatives, and though it may sound ho-hum to you now, the idea of basing a system of government on an actual nose count was utterly groundbreaking back in 1787.

Tape (Michael Quinn): Unfortunately, the common association with a census was all negative.

P. Onuf: That’s Michael Quinn, the director of Montpelier, James Madison’s historic home here in Central Virginia.  James Madison, you will remember, was our fourth president, but he was also the main author of the Constitution.

Tape (Michael Quinn): Why would government want to count people? Well, usually there are two reasons.  They either want to take more of their wealth so they want to find out who you are and where you live, or else they want to draft people for an army, which means they’re going to conscript your young men.

P. Onuf: In 1787, conscripting young men wasn’t really at the top of the founders’ to-do list, but taking people’s wealth, well, it’s fair to say, it was.  They were keenly aware that if the young nation was going to survive, the central government would need to figure out a way to fund itself.  The genius of Article One was that by tying both taxation and representation to that nose count, it assured that citizens wouldn’t try to shirk their fiscal responsibilities by laying low when the nose-counter came around.  They had an incentive to stand up, and be counted.

Tape (Michael Quinn): And that is classic Madisonian thinking.  Madison again and again said you should never trust anyone.  Now, at the same time he never gave up.  What he realized the need for was to have counterbalancing forces, motivations.

P. Onuf: Well, if you think that’s good, well, it gets better.  Because not only did the founders create a legislative body that would truly reflect the shape of its constituency, they also made sure that it would continue to do so on into the future.

Tape (Reading from the US Constitution): The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

Tape (Michael Quinn): They recognized how quickly the country was growing and how rapidly it was changing.  They anticipated people moving west.  So they talked about the fact that if we set forever once and for all how we are represented in Congress here at this Constitutional Convention, that will be an unjust distribution of power in 10, 20, 30 years, so they came to the conclusion that if we count the people, then we always, we’re literally building in a revolution every ten years in the American system because we will reapportion the number of representatives in Congress and that ended up stripping power over time from very powerful states at the beginning and they did it in a very peaceful manner.

P. Onuf: That’s Michael Quinn, director of James Madison’s Montpelier.   [music]

B. Balogh: Peter, like just about everything in your period, it could’ve gone quite differently, right?  Because a lot of people said that people should in essence be counted based on their wealth.  Am I wrong?

P. Onuf: Yeah.  This notion of wealth being represented was a traditional idea in early modern societies.  It’s the stake in society idea that those who own should be the ones who control the distribution of their own property.

B. Balogh: Who eat steak?

P. Onuf: Yeah, yeah.  But in the revolutionary period, a new idea was in the air and that was the idea of popular sovereignty.  When you had this fiction, as it’s called, this idea that the people are the source of legitimate authority, well, who are the people?  Everybody is the people.

B. Balogh: You know what I don’t understand, though, Peter is, we know that very few people really voted.  Most people were not allowed to vote.

P. Onuf: No, well—

B. Balogh: In fact, because they didn’t own property or they were women [laughs] or they were owned by somebody.

P. Onuf: Oh, oh, hold it.  So people—

B. Balogh: So, why do we need to count everybody?

P. Onuf: Oh, come on.  People include women?  Not in this period.

B. Balogh: But we counted them for the census.  That’s my question.

P. Onuf: Well, that’s true, and this is the radical revolutionary move as Mike Quinn suggests and that is there’s a whole new idea of the source of legitimate authority comes from the people and the people is not simply the big property owners or the property owners because those numbers and proportions vary and of course everybody, except for slaves and Indians not counted, they’re citizens and so they have to be represented.  You know, we have this idea that representation is direct and that everybody has a say and a vote in who is going to represent them.  Well, there is another theory of representation.  You might call it a virtual representation in which the patriarch of the family, the householder, is representing everybody in his family, so women are represented, Brian.  That is, they have the status of citizens and even though they can’t vote and have very little civil competence, they can’t do very much, but nonetheless, they are represented—

B. Balogh: But, Peter, why do we care how many of them there are?

P. Onuf: Well, the real reason for this, Brian, is to achieve an enduring balance in the federal union.

B. Balogh: Ahh, so it’s competition between the elites.

P. Onuf: Well, yeah.  Well, there’s no question about it and it’s the tension between this elite concern with having an effective voice in the councils of the national government, in the federal government, combined with this new revolutionary theory that the people are represented.  That’s the master fiction of the age.  So, these elites to justify themselves, have to claim that they’re not representing themselves.

B. Balogh: Right.

P. Onuf: They’re representing larger populations and meanwhile, you can’t assess the relative voting strength of a state according to wealth or of property because there’re so many different kinds of property.

E. Ayers: And, of course, there’s a weird wrinkle in all of this.  The category that is both human and property, and of course we’re talking about enslaved people.

P. Onuf: Absolutely.

E. Ayers: You’re talking about fictions, Peter.  Now, one fiction is that an enslaved person—male or female, young or old—counts as three-fifths of a free person, right?  So, you had this kind of thing.  It has the census and it’s adding it up and counting it and it’s based on human population, but by the very nature of doing that, it’s converting it into a political fiction which is also an economic fiction.

P. Onuf: You’re so right on.

E. Ayers: So Michael Quinn was talking about how the founders were visionary and building in the population as the real basis of representation so that they knew that the states of the west are going to come into being and the states of the east, but what were they thinking about the three-fifths clause?  Did they see this as an enduring foundation for the Constitution or did they expect this to kind of fade away with time?

P. Onuf: No.  I mean, they certainly thought that everybody went into this thing with their eyes open and understood what they were compromising but we can see the three-fifths clause as a time bomb that was going to go off because once you’ve recognized the idea that slaves are humans and then you compromise that idea and say, well, they’re somewhat less than human, then that powerful idea of equality—which is all over the place in the revolution and the Declaration but also in the Constitution—in the census is predicated on the idea of equality.  That is, equal numbers of voters in different states are going to be represented equally in the House of Representatives.  I mean, that’s very important.

E. Ayers: So, Peter, that’s very interesting that we have this sort of language of equality all over the place and yet ironically, there’s been one continuity in the census across all three of our centuries—they focused on racial distinction and not just any racial distinction but that between white and black or what they called in the early 19th century white and colored and as the census becomes more sophisticated, more granular, they devise more granular language for race as well, so in 1850, they come up with a new category, a third category—mulatto—to describe someone of indeterminate proportion of black and white.  Now, we’re going to hear about this from Melissa Nobles who’s a political scientist at MIT who’s written about this shift in terminology.  She says the new category was mostly the doing of an Alabama doctor named Josiah Knott who believed that racial mixing was unhealthy so for years he’d been publishing articles and lobbying senators to start keeping track of this dangerous mulatto population.

Tape (Reading from the writings of Josiah Knott): “I hope I’ve said enough to make apparent the paramount importance of Negro statistics.  If the blacks are intellectually inferior to the whites, if the whites are deteriorated by amalgamation with the blacks, if the longevity and physical perfection of the mixed race is below that of either of the pure races and if the Negro is by nature unfit for self-government, these are grave matters for consideration.” Josiah Knott, DeBow’s Review, 1847.

Tape (Melissa Nobles): He had a longstanding interest not in slavery because he believed that slavery required no defense and he also believed blacks inferior and that required no defense, but what he was interested in is the idea of polygenesis, meaning that blacks and whites were a different species and so he thought that the mulatto was really the key to understanding the nature of human differences and human variation.  His theory was that mulattoes would be an example of the deleterious effects of racial intermixture and he wanted more statistical data to prove that.

E. Ayers: So the crucial question there was were mulattoes doomed to have a shorter life.   That was what you could measure.

Tape (Melissa Nobles): That’s exactly right.   And so you would want the mulatto category on censuses over time, right?  Because you would want to have a longitudinal study, right?  You want to see over the time, were these people in fact dying off.  And that is why he lobbies a senator from Kentucky, Joseph Underwood, to get the mulatto category on the 1850 Census and he succeeds.

E. Ayers: That’s Melissa Nobles, author of Shades of Citizenship:  Race in the Census in Modern Politics.  [music]

P. Onuf: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, we’ll look at what race meant to the census takers of the 20th century.  And we’ll take a few of your calls.  This is “BackStory.”  We’ll be back in a minute.  [music fade out]

P. Onuf: We’re back with “BackStory,” the show that takes a topic from today’s America and explores its historical context.  I’m Peter Onuf here to represent the 18th century.

E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, speaking for the 19th century.

B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, standing in for all things 20th century.  When the recent batch of census numbers was released, most of the news coverage focused in on the actual data.  But today, we’re going beyond the numbers, and looking at the census process itself.  For the past few weeks, we’ve been inviting your questions and comments on our website, and our producers have invited a few of you who weighed in there to join us on the phone.  [music]

P. Onuf: First up today we have Rebecca, calling in from across the northern border in London, Ontario. Rebecca, welcome to “BackStory.”

Caller (Rebecca): Oh, it’s so nice to be here.

P. Onuf: We’re talking about our census, so why are you calling?

Caller (Rebecca): [laughs]  Actually, I’m kind of curious about how Native Americans figured in the census, from a Canadian point of view.  I’m kind of curious about the Great Plains and the prairies and everything because I know people were moving around a great deal in the 19th century still, so I’m kind of curious about how people who were moving around are kind of in national space but aren’t really of it.  And who can cross that really porous organized parallel quite easily.  Like how exactly would they figure in the census and would they be counted or were they just kind of a big blank?

E. Ayers: Well, as you might imagine, it changes over time, which is the only reason we have a show.  [laughter]  But if I’m not mistaken, the first time that the American Indians were really included in the census in any really meaningful way was 1870, which you will have noticed is centuries after the first contact.  In some ways, it went hand in hand with a greater attention to all kinds of ethnicities and so there had been, as we’ve heard from Melissa Nobles, an annotation of mulatto all the way back to 1850.  After Emancipation, they begin to add in other ethnicities such as Chinese and Japanese, but by the time you get to 1890, it seems incumbent upon the census to slice and dice African American identity into ever smaller pieces all the way down octoroon—one-eighth blood—so as we see over the course of the late 19th century, the Census Bureau uses its expertise, its greater reach into the American population to draw ever-finer gradations across the American population and American Indians are a part of that.

P. Onuf: Now, Rebecca, I loved your expression, national space, and I wonder if you’d like to tell us a little bit about your own perspective on this, that is, how to pin people down, in effect, and to count them and in the early censuses, of course, they weren’t counted because they were not part of the constitutional population for purposes of representation.  They were instead outside the bounds yet somehow they were also within this national space.

Caller (Rebecca): Well, that’s what I just find so interesting about it.  So, it’s like the nation has kind of arriving around them while they’ve got an entirely different culture and economy and way of organizing themselves that sort of encroaches on this dynamic space right in the middle of the country.

P. Onuf: So, Ed, what about 1870?  What was going on in Indian country?

E. Ayers: Well, let me ask you a question.  What happened in 1869?

P. Onuf: Oooh, one of those big battles?

E. Ayers: No.  The Transcontinental Railroad.

P. Onuf: Oh, yeah.

E. Ayers: Okay?  So, this is obviously after the Civil War and you’ve got the Union Army out there, as they see it, pacifying the American Indian, so it’s interesting that the American Indians finally gain a presence only at the time that the American government really feels it has command over them.

P. Onuf: Yeah, Rebecca, that’s a great question.

Caller (Rebecca): Well, thank you so much for answering my question.

P. Onuf: Thank you for calling.

Caller (Rebecca): Have a good day.

P. Onuf: Bye.

Caller (Rebecca): Bye.  [music]

P. Onuf: So, in the case of Indians in the second half of the 19th century, these statistical categories really become a means for government control.  Was that also the case on into your century, Brian?

B. Balogh: Yeah.  I would say even more so.  Certainly by the 1920s with the rise of the eugenics movement, a movement that believed that people’s destiny was determined by their ancestors’ genetic material, people are looking to control more and more, so data that you guys have been talking about—race—that had always been part of the census now got operationalized, if you will, a 20th century term if there ever was one.

P. Onuf: Right, right.

B. Balogh: That meant right here in Virginia, for instance, people couldn’t marry other people based on what race they were and we tried to enforce those racial divisions more and more strictly.

E. Ayers: And, you know, you talk about operationalizing which is truly an ugly 20th century word.

B. Balogh: It is.  I take such pride in it.

P. Onuf: Yeah.  What would you say in the 19th century, Ed?

E. Ayers: Umm, making manifest.  [laughs]

B. Balogh: That’s very good.

E. Ayers: Yeah.

B. Balogh: That’s good.

E. Ayers: So, speaking of operationalizing, Brian, or making manifest, the danger comes when the numbers are turned into individual people.  So, let me tell you something that happened right here in Virginia in Richmond in the capital back in the 1920s.  A man named Walter Plecker, the head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, decides to use the power of that office to really interrogate the racial identity of people who are applying to him for marriage certificates and birth certificates.   He would write to new mothers and say I see you’ve registered your child as white, but our records here show clearly that his father is black and you better not have this young boy going to school with whites or marrying whites ‘cause the state is watching, right?

P. Onuf: Wow.

E. Ayers: As insidious as the three-fifths clause was and as the abuse of aggregate statistics was, it was this sort of lowering of the boundary of the state to really penetrate into the most intimate aspects of people’s lives that I think even the people who believed in so-called racial purity in the South recognized how dangerous this was and Plecker really was forced to retract.

B. Balogh: We’ve emphasized the negative aspect of all this racial classification but by the end of my century, people are actually asking, demanding, to be classified and that’s because increasingly there’s legislation that requires racial classification.  I mean, the most important of those pieces of legislation is the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and it’s based on the under-representation of African Americans primarily in the South and how do you invoke the Voting Rights Act?  Well, you need to show that a certain percentage of African Americans are not being registered at the polls and this data provided by the census is crucial to one of the great mobilizations in all of American history.  That is, African Americans beginning to vote in the Deep South which they had not been allowed to do for almost 75 years.  [music]  So, I have a little test for you guys.

E. Ayers: All right.

B. Balogh: Where in the larger American empire in the 20th century was race not used in the census?

P. Onuf: Hmmm—

B. Balogh: Hawaii?

P. Onuf: Larger American empire?

B. Balogh: Yeah, that’s kind of a hint.

P. Onuf: Wow.  Okay.  What else do we have now?  We don’t have the Philippines anymore, barely.  How about Puerto Rico?

B. Balogh: You got it.  Puerto Rico after 1950 dropped the question of race and it didn’t start asking about it again until 2000.  I asked Fernando Armstrong, the Puerto Rico area manager for the 1980 Census what explained this strange omission.

Tape (Fernando Armstrong): The concept of race in Puerto Rico has never been as prevalent as it is in the States.  You can go back to the history of the island.  The Puerto Rican population is a very—how would I say—complex mix of the European, the African population that came as slaves, and the local Indian population that lived in the Caribbean, so the concept of white, black, Asian, is not a very meaningful concept in the island of Puerto Rico.

B. Balogh: So, Peter, Ed—Puerto Rico, the first post-racialist society in America?

P. Onuf: Yeah, I think that’s a fair way to think about it, but you could also think back to before—

B. Balogh: I was hoping you would think back, Peter.

P. Onuf: Yeah.  Well, that’s what I tend to do—I’m a backward thinker—to, of course, the pre-American period in the Caribbean and the Spanish Caribbean and our categories are utterly alien to those of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other islands where you have really mixed societies.

E. Ayers: Yes, that’s an interesting point, Peter, the racial complexity of the Caribbean is suddenly radically simplified.  When Puerto Rican people come to the mainland in the 20th century and they live here for a while and the federal government looks around and says, you know, I see a new ethnic identity here which is that all you people are speaking Spanish and we’re going to call that Hispanic and so suddenly in the 1980 Census, you have a whole new category that’s not racial in the way that they would’ve thought of things in the 18th or the 19th century but rather as a kind of a racialized concept of a language that someone speaks.

B. Balogh: And you know what, Ed, the remarkable thing is that Mexican Americans whose families had been living here for hundreds of years—

P. Onuf: Yeah.

B. Balogh: All of a sudden find that they’re part of that new category and you know what else, the three of us are part of a new category.  We are non-Hispanics.

P. Onuf: Oh, right.

B. Balogh: And even though I won the Spanish Award at Ponce de Leon Junior High School in Coral Gables, Florida, I am a non-Hispanic all of a sudden.  But, guys, in all this discussion about identity, it’s very easy to forget the fundamental purpose of the census which is to apportion the United States and determine representation and that’s where Puerto Rico is actually really pretty interesting again, because as members of a U.S. protectorate, the citizens of Puerto Rico don’t get representatives in Congress, so if in fact as you pointed out very early on in the show, Peter, that one of the incentives for folks for filling out the census or responding to the enumerators was to get counted and get voted, why would anybody bother to send back their form or talk to an enumerator in Puerto Rico.  I put that very question to Fernando Armstrong.

Tape (Fernando Armstrong): You are correct.  In Puerto Rico, there is a resident commissioner in Congress, only one, and there’s no apportionment of the House, any change, as a result of the census.  However, at the local level, at the state level, the Puerto Rico legislature is apportioned, redistricted based on the census figures at the municipal level and city level.  All those local districts are changed based on census figures.

B. Balogh: Yeah, Mr. Armstrong, you make such a great point because we think about the census as, well, it’s written into the Constitution.  It’s a very national federal program, yet the data even in Puerto Rico and in states and localities on the mainland in the United States, they use these data for all kinds of very important local and state redistricting decisions.

Tape (Fernando Armstrong): Right.  Right.  And on top of that, Brian, every year more than 400 billion dollars are distributed in many different ways using formulas that use census figures, so it’s political representation and it’s also economic power that the localities receive with a good and accurate census.

B. Balogh: That’s Fernando Armstrong.  He spoke to me on the phone from Philadelphia where he now serves as the Director of the Census Bureau’s regional office. [music]

E. Ayers: So, there’s a lot of money at stake and that’s something that’s new in the 20th century.  Certainly back in the 19th century, everybody knew there were undercounts but it didn’t really have the meaning that it did in your century, Brian.  How does that unfold?

B. Balogh: Well, it unfolds, first of all, because there are now so many federal programs that are tied to the income of citizens in the various states.

E. Ayers: They actually want to count more people of poverty.

B. Balogh: That’s right.  It’s good to be poor for some—

E. Ayers: Right, right.

P. Onuf: Sort of turning the stake in society upside down, huh?

B. Balogh: That’s exactly right.

P. Onuf: Yeah.

B. Balogh: So, starting in the 1980s, cities began to sue the federal government for the consistent underrepresentation of minorities in the census and I actually—you guys won’t believe this—but I actually participated in a lawsuit that New York City filed in the 1980s against the federal government.  Why?  Because I ran some welfare programs and how were we going to prove that there was an undercount?  Well, we used my welfare rolls to identify people who showed up on welfare but did not show up in the raw data for the census, thus proving this undercount.  Why did we want this?  We wanted this for programs like the school lunch program which are funded based on the amount of impoverished people in a district.  Well, 30 years later, I got to talk to the guy I was suing or we were suing, suing for incompetence, in fact.  His name is Vincent Barabba and in 1980, he was the Census Bureau director.

Tape (Vincent Barabba): In one of my lighter moments, I said the ultimate slap in the face is being sued for incompetence by the city of New York [laughter] and Mayor Koch and from then on, he called me Barabbas the Robber.

B. Balogh: The Census Bureau ultimately prevailed in that lawsuit and to be fair, we should say that most of what we know about the undercount over the years comes from none other than the Census Bureau itself.

Tape (Vincent Barabba): I think the Census Bureau is the only agency of government that not only willingly admits it makes a mistake, but quite precisely estimates the extent to which it made that mistake.  [laughter]  And it doesn’t do it to beat itself up.  It does it because it wants to learn how to do a better job the next time out.

B. Balogh: Now, Census directors are political appointees and because of voting patterns, not all of our leaders in Washington have the same interest in counting every last urban resident, but since Vincent Barabba has the notable distinction of being the only Census director ever to have served presidents in both political parties, we can assume he’s more or less of a straight shooter and so I was particularly interested to hear his take on the challenges the Census Bureau faced in 1980 when it fanned out across America’s cities.

Tape (Vincent Barabba): It was relatively straightforward and easy to get to each household, but whether you got everybody inside the household enumerated was always a more complex question because there might have been some people living in that household who were there, you know, maybe there were more people living in the household than were allowed or that somebody might be living there in an undocumented status, but the other part was that that there was a lot of movement in our society at that time.  We’d just gone through the Age of Aquarius and things of that nature and people were a lot looser with their living conditions.

B. Balogh: Is it fair to say that relationships were not as clearly bounded or clearly defined?

Tape (Vincent Barabba): Oh, there’s the classic.  I mean, we used to have a thing called the head of the household, okay?  You didn’t want to know who the head was.  They just wanted to have somebody that you could relate everybody else in the household to and when we first sent out the test questionnaire, I mean, we got—  I mean, from Texas we used to get—  We’d get a negative response saying what you mean, the head of our household, we don’t have a head in our household.  [laughter]  So, that’s when we came up with, you know, put a person in column 1.


B. Balogh: That’s Vincent Barabba.  He served as U.S. Census Bureau Director from 1973 to 1976, and again from 1979 to 1981.  You can hear a full version of our conversation and of all of the other interviews in this show at

[music—“In 80 million mailboxes across the U.S.A., the census is a comin’ to help us plan the way.”]

E. Ayers: It’s time for another short break.  When we get back we’ll hear from a census enumerator who was pounding the pavement from door to door when Vincent Barabba was barely out of his diapers.

[music—“You can count on me.  Can we count on you?  You can count on me.  Help your community get equal government representation.  Help show where funds are needed for jobs, schools, health care and more.  Answer the 1980 Census and all your answers are kept confidential by law.”

B. Balogh: Support for “BackStory” comes from the David A. Harrison Fund for the President’s Initiatives at the University of Virginia, UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Cary Brown-Epstein and the W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation, James Madison’s Montpelier, Marcus and Carole Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, Jay M. Weinberg, and an anonymous donor.

[music—“Answer the census.  We’re counting on you.”]

P. Onuf: More “BackStory” coming up in a minute.  Don’t go away.

P. Onuf: This is “BackStory,” the show that turns to history to explain the America of today.  I’m Peter Onuf, your 18th century guy.

E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, your 19th century guy

B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy.  Today on the show, we’re marking the culmination of Census 2010 with an in-depth look at the role of the census throughout our history and as we do on each of our episodes, we’re fielding a few of your questions on this topic.

P. Onuf: Next up on the phone we have Shawn calling in from calling in from Austin, Texas. Shawn, welcome to “BackStory.”

Caller (Shawn): Thank you.  I was wondering if the 1940 Census was used to identify persons of Japanese ancestry after President Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order authorizing the relocation of anyone deemed a threat to national security.

B. Balogh: Shawn, hasn’t someone told you that there’s a prohibition on asking about specific factual information here on “BackStory”?

Caller (Shawn): I thought that’s what you dealt in.  [laughter]

B. Balogh: Well, we’ll give it our best shot.  Yeah.  The short story is that that census data was in fact used to identify and round up Japanese Americans.  The legal fig leaf that was used to justify it was the second War Powers Act which also gave the United States the authority under the conditions of war to do things like round up citizens and put them in camps and this story has been retold recently because of current concerns about privacy issues.  There’s a prominent representative of Congress, Michelle Bachmann who’s made reference to this and so let me ask you, Shawn, is that how you are—  Is that why you’re asking about this because—

Caller (Shawn): Well, like you said, this comes up every 10 years when there is a census, the privacy advocates will bring this up and it’s part of the libertarian folklore.  It’s like if they did it once they can do it again.

B. Balogh: Yeah, and, you know, we need to be cognizant.  Look, here on “BackStory,” it’s kind of why we do what we do but we also try to put things in context.  I’m curious to hear whether there were similar concerns in your centuries, guys.

P. Onuf: Yeah, well, back in the 18th century, Brian, certainly the notion that your personal space, that is your home was your castle, is a fundamental one and it’s, of course, written into the Bill of Rights—you don’t break into people’s houses.  I mean, that’s what you associate with despotism and tyranny and, of course, in the 18th century, we don’t have this exaggerated, as Shawn calls it, this libertarian obsession because people actually live in very intimate spaces and don’t have a lot of what we would call privacy and therefore—

B. Balogh: They already know everything there is to know.

P. Onuf: They know too much, so we have certainly an exaggerated modern sense of the sanctity of private space.  We have larger houses.  We have rooms of our own, to quote Virginia Woolf, and along with that goes a heightened sense of the integrity of our own space.

B. Balogh: You know, you could almost see the suspicion of the census as a kind of a canary in the coal mine of what particular anxieties that Americans have over time.  There’s a great cartoon that maybe we can put online at  It’s from August of 1860 right after the census had been taken in that summer and it shows a kind of a slimy looking government bureaucrat walking into a beautiful 19th century parlor with everybody rendered in just the kind of the cherubic plumpness that we imagine of 19th century domesticity and he says, “folks, I just need a few questions answered.  Are there any idiots here?  Are there any imbeciles here?  Are there any deaf, dumb and blind people here?  How old might the female members of the household be?  And just a final question, I wonder how much money you might actually have.”  [laughter]  And, it says in parentheses at the bottom, “general agitation around the table,” [laughter] so that everybody is worked up.  It strikes me that it’s not an accident that that cartoon was about the parlor, that it was about the family, that it was about the ages of women, and that it was about the increasingly hidden aspect of a family’s income.  Back in the 18th century, it seems to me, Peter, people had a pretty good idea how much money people had.

P. Onuf: Because acres were hard to hide.  [laughter]

E. Ayers: Yeah, exactly, but in this Victorian parlor, people have bank stock and promissory notes and all these different kinds of things and so the government seems to be coming ever more inquisitive and yet we didn’t really hear other than a few cartoons like this many objections to it, so it’s ironic that at the time you see the greatest scaling up of the inquisitiveness of the federal government, you don’t really see a rebellion.  It comes later, in some ways, after the damage, if you want to think of it that way, has already been done.

P. Onuf: Yeah.  It suggests to me, Ed, that there’s an important symbolic element to this.  It’s not that this is the only time that your life is in any way influenced by the state.  Quite the contrary, but this is the one time because of this symbolic psychological invasion of personal space that you can say “no” or you can say “maybe this is the step too far into my life,” even though government is in fact responsible for the conditions of ordinary life increasingly through your century and definitely through Brian’s and into ours, but what really puzzles me is that in the 21st century we have come to accept the gathering of data and information in the private sector.  We voluntarily put information about ourselves out on social networks so that there’s an odd disconnect between this fetish of leave me alone, leave me into my own personal space, and the way the whole corporate world, anybody, is gathering and can deploy information about us promiscuously.  Shawn, does that strike you as a disconnect?

Caller (Shawn): Yes, somewhat, and the government is prohibited from collecting a lot of this information but nothing prohibits them from buying it from these private sources.

B. Balogh: No.  That’s exactly right and you may know, Shawn, that in Canada, there’s serious discussion about doing away with the census and using these private data sources which, of course, the data has been given voluntarily by people—

P. Onuf: Every time you shop.

B. Balogh: Much more—every time you shop—as a more reliable way of getting the kind of information that our census or the Canadian census currently in a very straightforward way goes, people and people resisted, and say, I’m not giving that to you, but we give all this information because we do think, ah, you know, yeah, right, someone sitting there at Goggle caring about me.  Yeah, sure.  So, we say—

P. Onuf: There’s an algorithm out there.  [laughter]  Thanks a lot for calling.

B. Balogh: Thank you, Shawn, and what is your social security number?  [laughter]

Caller (Shawn): Yeah.  I’ll send it along with my credit card info.

P. Onuf: We just want your bar code.  [laughter]

B. Balogh: Thank you very much.

Caller (Shawn): Thank you.  [music]

E. Ayers: You’ll have to say the story of the Census Bureau’s role in the internment of Japanese Americans is really one of the worst episodes in how this data can be used for a whole range of political ends, depending on what’s going on at the time, and another thing that was going on around that 1940 Census besides World War II was that America was climbing out of the Great Depression and sure enough, we get a bunch of new questions about employment status on that year’s form and we’ll post an image of it at  You’ll see questions like how much people are working, whether they’re looking for work, that sort of thing, and Congress also authorizes a separate census of housing to be administered along with the regular population survey.

B. Balogh: If I told you that that housing survey added 31 questions to the 34 that were already on the regular questionnaire, you would begin to feel pretty bad for those folks who had to stand there and answer one question after another.  This was decades before people just mailed in forms. But what about the census takers?  What was the experience like from their side of the clipboard?  We put in a call to find out.

Tape (Al Marquart): I am Al Marquart.  I live in Kingston, New York.  I took the census in 1940 as a 19-year-old right out of high school the previous June.

B. Balogh: After graduating from high school, Al Marquart was unable to find work for the good part of a year so he headed down to the post office where the Census Bureau had set up its temporary headquarters.

Tape (Al Marquart): And Mrs. O’Reilly, Miss O’Reilly, excuse me, who was doing the hiring made the remark—“oh, I want you, because I can read your handwriting.”

B. Balogh: Well, Al was put to work in a neighborhood abutting the Kingston Brickyards, home mostly to immigrants and African Americans.

Tape (Al Marquart): There was a question on how many tons of coal do you burn in a year and I remember this very specifically, this Italian lady saying that she wore out so many tons of coal.  Well, after you get through with burning it in the fire, yeah, it’s sure worn out.

B. Balogh: Did people invite you in for a cup of tea or did you stand on the doorstep?

Tape (Al Marquart): I can remember along the brickyard one-room shacks being told, “sit right down there, boss.  Sit down there on my bed” or “sit on that chair.”  Well, the chair no longer had any cane in it so I kind of hung through.  [laughter]

B. Balogh: What did you learn from gathering all these data that you didn’t know before you started this job?

Tape (Al Marquart): Oh, boy.  Oh, it opened my eyes to see that people could live in conditions in which some of them existed and it always amazes me the respect that a 19-year-old got from people who were two to three times older than I was.

B. Balogh: Do you think that people respected you because they feared you?  In other words, they feared the government?  Or do you think that they were proud to be talking to a representative of the government?

Tape (Al Marquart): It certainly wasn’t fear.

B. Balogh: It was not fear?

Tape (Al Marquart): No.  I think it was total respect for the government because, remember, back in that day, the government did things for you.  Remember, Franklin Roosevelt, all of his programs, and I’m sure that many of these people benefitted from those programs.

B. Balogh: Al Marquart was an enumerator in the 1940 Census.  You can hear the full versions of our conversation including his account of what he did with his census wages at  [music]

P. Onuf: So, as we’ve seen in the case of 1940, the decennial census gives us all kinds of useful information, everything from basic population figures to the nation’s consumption of coal, but it also gives the rest of us a periodic snapshot of ourselves as a nation.  For example, the 1890 Census led Frederick Jackson Turner to issue his famous pronouncement about the end of the American frontier because that’s what the census had told us and in 1920, the census made clear once and for all that America was now a predominantly urban nation.

E. Ayers: In 1921, Robert Frost published a poem called “The Census Taker.”  Its narrator we can assume is an enumerator from the year before who comes upon a one-room shack one evening in the middle of what had been New Hampshire woods.  “BackStory” producer Catherine Moore is going to lead us through that poem now and tell the story of how the 1920 Census played out in Washington.

Tape (Catherine Moore): Like all census takers at all points in history, this one is trying to count people, but that’s hard to do in a ghost town.

Tape (Reading from Frost): “I came as census-taker to the waste / To count the people in it and found none, / None in the hundred miles, none in the house, / Where I came last with some hope, but not much, / After hours’ overlooking from the cliffs / An emptiness flayed to the very stone.”

Tape (Catherine Moore): When the 1920 Census results came back, they confirmed what many had expected for some time.  For the first time ever, the majority of Americans now lived in cities.  It was a season of change.

Tape (Reading from Frost): “The time was autumn, but how anyone / could tell the time of year when every tree / That could have dropped a leaf was down itself / And nothing but the stump of it was left.”

Tape (Catherine Moore): The house is no ordinary house, but a bunkhouse for the loggers who recently cut down every tree in sight.

Tape (Reading from Frost): “Without a single leaf to spend on autumn.”

Tape (Catherine Moore): The rural landscape is literally fueling urban growth and the census taker isn’t the only one disoriented by the rural flight.  When the 1920 numbers were in and it came time to reapportion the House of Representatives, it became clear that rural states would lose 8 seats and urban states would gain 11.  For the Republicans who controlled Congress, many of whom found support in those small rural states, this was difficult to swallow. As it was for many of their constituents who had all sorts of negative associations with the idea of an urban industrial society—violence, moral perversion, food shortages, labor conflict, immigrants.

Tape (Reading from Frost): “Perhaps the wind the more without the help / Of breathing trees said something of the time / Of year or day the way it swung a door / Forever off the latch.”

Tape (Catherine Moore): Whether from isolation or fatigue, our narrator is becoming a little deluded himself.  Each time the wind slams the door of the bunkhouse, he imagines it’s a man walking inside and so he does what any good census taker would do with these apparitions—he starts to count them.

Tape (Reading from Frost): “I counted nine I had no right to count / (But this was dreamy unofficial counting) / Before I made the tenth across the threshold. / Where was my supper? Where was anyone’s?”

Tape (Catherine Moore): Spooked by the ghostly scene inside, the census taker grabs a weapon.

Tape (Reading from Frost): “I armed myself against such bones as might be / With the pitch-blackened stub of an ax-handle / I picked up off the straw-dust-covered floor.”

Tape (Catherine Moore): Delusion, fear, dreamy unofficial counting.  This could just as well describe the response in Washington to the census that year.  Faced with the requirement that they realign themselves to the nation’s urban shift, Congress made history by, well, not doing anything at all.  Nor did they do anything the next year.  Or the year after that.  For almost a decade, in fact, Congress flouted the Constitution and failed to reapportion.  An apportionment bill finally passed in 1929 but for 20 years, the power balance of America’s system of representation essentially remained stuck in time.

Tape (Reading from Frost): “Nothing was left to do that I could see.”

Tape (Catherine Moore): In the poem’s final lines, the census taker commands the ghostly presences to speak up or hold their peace.

Tape (Reading from Frost): “The place is desert, and let whoso lurks / In silence, if in this he is aggrieved, / Break silence now or be forever silent.”

Tape (Catherine Moore): Though a deep sorrow is conjured by the scene of inescapable change, the census taker knows that for life to move forward, those ghosts who tie him to the past must be banished.

Tape (Reading from Frost): “The melancholy of having to count souls / Where they grow fewer and fewer every year / Is extreme where they shrink to none at all. / It must be I want life to go on living.”

Tape (Catherine Moore): We wouldn’t need a census if not for the constant of change.  Part of its value is that it forces us every 10 years to confront our own transformation and ask questions like who are we, who are we no longer and who might we become.  It can be tempting to cling to our idea of what was, yet every 10 years the census asks us to give up our ghosts.  [music]

P. Onuf: That’s “BackStory” producer Catherine Moore.

B. Balogh: That’s all the time we have on our show today, but as always, the conversation continues online.  Tell us what parts of the census were most meaningful for you, either in the actual process of filing out your form or in the numbers that came back from the government.  We’ll do our best to respond.

P. Onuf: You can find us at  Don’t be a stranger.

E. Ayers: “BackStory” is produced by Tony Field with help from Catherine Moore.  Jamal Milner mastered the show and Gaby Alter wrote our theme.

P. Onuf: Special thanks today to the “BackStory” Players—Richard Warner, Rob Vaughn and our executive producer Andrew Wyndham, otherwise known as the Voice of the Constitution.

E. Ayers: Major production support for “BackStory” is provided by The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.  Support also comes from University of Richmond and from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation committed to the idea that the future may learn from the last.

Voiceover: Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia.  Brian Balogh is a Professor of History at the University of Virginia and UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.  Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond.  “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.  [music]