For a narrow slice of the population, mostly those people located far to the right on America's political spectrum and far from the country's urban centers, the census is a favorite boogeyman. For mainline conservatives, the census is regarded with suspicion because every 10 years, the ranks of minorities who don't vote Republican continue to grow; Republicans would rather that it was harder to find and count these poorer, urban populations. For the lunatic fringe, the census is an invasion into their private lives by the hated federal government.
There is now evidence that these two views are converging. The grisly murder of census worker Bill Sparkman in rural Kentucky three weeks ago shows us that despite more than three centuries of census taking in America, suspicions remain. Rather than being driven deeper into the backwoods, this virulent fear of the census - and of government in general - is gaining traction in national politics. No one has condoned this dreadful murder, but certain public figures have chosen to use misinformation about the census to stoke Americans' fears, just as they used lies about the president's citizenship and the so-called "death panels." These conspiracy theories are aired every night by Glenn Beck and repeated continuously in the halls of Congress.
A look back at the history of the census in America, and resistance to it, may be instructive to understand how we reached this place.
The earliest opposition to the census had a religious foundation. Enumerating the population was referred to as the "Sin of David," a reference to the biblical King David's order to count the people of Israel, in defiance of God's will. In some parts of the world, enumerations are still rejected on religious grounds - in 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church opposed a government plan to issue tax ID numbers to the entire population; some members of the clergy called them the "number of the beast." In America today, certain strains of religious fervor drive general resistance to government authority, but few cite King David's hubris.
The first federal census was launched in 1790. In the preceding century, the 13 colonies had each conducted more than 30 censuses, but a single national effort to count every person from Georgia to Maine had never been undertaken. Many were skeptical that it could be done accurately, but few doubted the necessity of a census, especially since America was embarking on an experiment of representative government. No taxation without representation was the battle cry of the Revolution, but there could be no representation without enumeration.
It is important to remember that the census is not an exercise carried out by a faceless state bureaucracy. Mr. Sparkman was one of the thousands of Americans who work part-time and full-time to complete the census. America's first census was carried out by a few hundred individuals; they were poorly paid, had little or no training, and they often had to provide their own materials and transportation. One such person was Edward Carrington, the marshal for the district of Virginia in 1790, who was responsible for the commonwealth's census returns. In March of that year, he wrote a letter to the US Department of Justice outlining his plans for the census; in it he also noted the importance of the census to democracy, and the dangers of misinformation about the undertaking:
When it is considered that this measure is to ascertain the proportions of representation of the several states in the Federal Government, and that the due weight to which this state is entitles therein, depends on the faithful execution of the act of Congress, it is hoped that gentlemen will be careful in their recommendations, and that all the good citizens of Virginia, will be ready to aid a full and fair enumeration of the inhabitants thereof.Later that year, he also wrote to James Madison, the most ardent supporter of the census, and predicted that there would be active campaigns against the project:
The Assistants [census takers] may compel every one he called on to make him a return by means of the penalty [a small fine levied for non-compliance], but it is not probable he will be able to discover any concealments of parts of families and there is no doubt but that many evil disposed persons will endeavour to impress upon the minds of the people, ideas that their future taxes will be governed by the numbers that shall now return.In early America, resistance to the census was strongest on the frontier. A healthy distrust of government is what led many into the wilderness in the first place. Most of the people who had settled beyond the Appalachians had done so without the consent of the British or American governments, so they had no proper title to the land they occupied - these squatters feared that any contact with government agents was a precursor to the loss of their property rights. This suspicion, combined with the difficulty of reaching remote populations in places like Kentucky, Vermont, and western Pennsylvania, conspired to make these people undercounted, and thus underrepresented in the first Congress. A report on the first census in the remote areas along Lake Champlain in Vermont described this situation:
Due to inexperience, imagination by the inhabitants that some scheme for increasing taxation was involved, difficulties of no roads, bridges, unsettled wilderness and isolated locations of the early settlers, opposition on religious grounds, all delayed the final enumeration a full year.It is likely that Mr. Sparkman faced some similar challenges in Clay County, Kentucky. Driving on bad roads to reach isolated populations with little support or supervision, like the census takers before him, he worked to help people be counted so that they could collect what was theirs from the national stock. In return for his service, he was lynched and branded. His killer (or killers) is still at large, and though we have no definitive explanation for this horrible crime, the fact that the word "FED" was inscribed across his chest is a chilling reminder of how deep anti-government sentiment continues to run in many parts of the country.
In reality, the census is not mundane. Embodied within this power to count and catalog the population is the power of the modern state to function. Even if we strip down the government to its most basic activities, as Ron Paul would have us do, an accurate count of the population is necessary for apportioning representatives to Congress, levying taxes, and raising an army. The framers of the Constitution understood this, which is why the census is essential to the operation of the federal government. But it does not represent an immanent threat of tyranny. We do not need Republican congressmen and backwoods survivalists to protect us from the depravities of enumeration. But the Economist described the often ambiguous position of the census like this:
Nowadays, a census is part of the standard equipment of a functioning state. In 1995 the UN called for all member nations to hold a census in the following decade. Yet counting people remains a sensitive business for two reasons, connected with the ambiguous character of government. Where government is oppressive, people want to keep out of censuses, lest information they provide is misused. Where government provides, people want to be in censuses, and to boost their numbers, in order to claim a larger share of the goodies.As an unambiguously democratic government, America should debate the merits of collecting certain types of information about the population, and how we deploy that information to better the lives of our citizens. In doing so, we should ensure that "gentlemen will be careful in their recommendations" and not whip people into a paranoid, anti-government frenzy in order to gain political advantage or improve television ratings.
American Antiquarian Society. Early American Imprints.
Anderson, Margo J. (2008). "The Census, Audiences, and Publics." Social Science History 32(1): 1-18.
"Census sensitivity" (2007). The Economist, Dec 19.
Hobson, Charles F. and Robert A. Rutland, eds. (1981). The Papers of James Madison, vol. 13. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.
Onuf, Peter (1987). Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Scott, Ann Herbert (1966). Census, U.S.A.: Fact Finding for the American People, 1790-1970. New York: Seabury Press.
Strelchik, Yevgeny (2006). “Nelzya pronumerovat chelovecheskuyu lichnost” (“You can’t replace a person’s identity with a number”). Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 5.