Is the Census New?
The History of the Census
When humankind first moved from hunters and gatherers to civilization, many cultural and social events happened at once. All of a sudden people needed money, taxes, food distribution, armies, housing, politicians, and more. Because we needed to organize so many aspects of society, we needed to take “a census” to understand supply and demand.
Originally censuses were used to keep track of people, organize work (think about the pyramids), organize food production and distribution, organize armies, and to keep a tally of property. Today we use them to both better understand our needs and to better understand our culture.
Here are some things you might not know about Censuses:
- Keeping a census is a practice probably as old as the first civilizations. We think the Babylonians used a census over 6,000 years ago to understand how much food was needed to feed the new civilization forming on the Fertile Crescent.
- Censuses probably took place in early Egypt (as early as the Pharaonic period in 3340 BCE and in 3056 BCE) and in ancient Greece (circa 1600 BCE and earlier).
- The first existing recorded census is from 300 BCE India.
- The Bible calls for a Census in Exodus 30:11-16.
- The story of the birth of Jesus takes place with Joseph and Mary traveling to be registered for the census.
- The word “census” originated in ancient Rome from the Latin word “censere” (“to estimate”). The Romans collected a census about every 5 years starting around 6th century BCE. It was used to determine taxes.
The Birth of Jesus and the Roman Census
The story of the birth of Jesus from the bible is actually driven by the census of the time. According to the Bible, Augustus had ordered that everyone return to their place of birth to register. So Joseph went to Bethlehem to the town of David, as he belonged to the house of David.
Below is an excerpt from Luke 2:1-7:
“In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” – Luke 2:1-7
King David and Anger Against the Census
The census is also mentioned in regards to King David. God punishes David for taking a census.
From the time of David to modern time, some have feared the census believing it will invoke violent acts of God. Others have thought it would give too much information to enemies and others simply didn’t want any given Government knowing what they owned and collecting taxes.
The Census in America
According to Census.Gov: In the United States of America the first census was conducted more than a year after the inauguration of President Washington and shortly before the second session of the first Congress ended in 1790. The law required that every household be visited, that completed census schedules be posted in “two of the most public places within [each jurisdiction], there to remain for the inspection of all concerned…” and that “the aggregate amount of each description of persons” for every district be transmitted to the president.
The six inquiries in 1790 called for the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household of the following descriptions:
- Free White males of 16 years and upward (to assess the country’s industrial and military potential)
- Free White males under 16 years
- Free White females
- All other free persons
Under the general direction of Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, marshals took the census in the original 13 States, plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson expressed skepticism over the final count, expecting a number that exceeded the 3.9 million inhabitants counted in the census.