A Brief History of The Census and Race in the United States

“Free Whites” and the First U.S. Census

Despite its original compromises with slavery, the U.S. Constitution remains a great political achievement in representative government. The Constitution articulates that legislative members in the House of Representatives are allocated based on how the population, both slave and free, are counted. Article 1, Section 2, set the enumeration of the U.S. population every ten years in order to assign this representation, which is why populous states receive a greater number of representatives in the lower house of Congress (and two Senators in the upper house for each state). The infamous three-fifths compromise, which counted only three-fifths of the enslaved population for purposes of political representation, also appears in this section of the Constitution.

It should be noted that Euro-American slaveholders preferred that their bondsmen and women be counted fully for political purposes. Certain northern states in New England were the first to gradually abolish slavery after the U.S. Revolution and some leaders eventually sought ways to limit the power of slaveholding states in the federal government. Counting the slave population at 60% somewhat limited that power, yet awarded additional representatives and electoral college votes to the southern states, where slavery remained legal until the U.S. Civil War. Southern elites gained additional political power in Congress through representation based on both free and enslaved populations, even though the master class did not represent the interests of slaves.

Interestingly, the first U.S. federal census of 1790 took place in the same year that Congress passed the first U.S. naturalization act, which stated that any “free white person” of good character who had simply resided in the country for two years could be naturalized as a U.S. citizen. Clearly, the United States upheld the former English racial order that placed “Negroes,” “Mulattoes,” and “Indians” below “whites” in the colonial hierarchy. From the beginning of U.S. history, the idea of national citizenship based on whiteness was rooted in the idea of “white” supremacy, thereby influencing the way people were counted in the first U.S. Census.

The 1790 Census categories counted “Free white” males and females, “Slaves,” and “All other free persons,” which included free non-“whites” or free people of color. Free people of color included people of African descent (free “Negroes” and “Mulattoes”) and “Indians” who presumably lived within state boundaries and paid taxes. From 1820-1840, “Free colored persons” were counted and another shift occurred in 1850 to count people by their skin color, either “white,” “black,” or “mulatto.” By 1860 officials added “Indian” and “Chinese” to census categories and in 1890 “Japanese” made the list, which blurred the distinction between ideas of race versus country of origin.

By 1890, officials also included additional classifications for so-called degrees of “Negro blood” for people of mixed ancestry. Euro-Americans believed a “mulatto” was a person of 1/2 African and 1/2 European ancestry, a “quadroon” stood around 1/4 African descent, and a person with 1/8 “Negro” blood would be enumerated as an “octoroon.” This was the first and last time the U.S. attempted to make such distinctions in terms of blood fractions in the U.S. Census, though it was not the last time the U.S. government would rely on the idea of blood quantum (Euro-Americans pushed these ideas within Native American communities in the twentieth century, which are still in effect among many tribes today).

Over the 1900s, U.S. officials decided to include several additional racial, ethnic, and national categories at various times and each decennial census contained a format somewhat different from the previous decade. During this time, “Mexican” and other groups from Latin America, “Hawaiian” and additional Pacific Islanders, as well as various classifications from Asia, became more specifically enumerated. Additional categories and changes continue into our current era.Since 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau has not made any major changes to the categories, but one big symbolic change has taken place in the new millennium.