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Beginning in 1840 and continuing for the succeeding three censuses, operations and oversight were directed by a superintending clerk of the census.
William Augustus Weaver (1840 census): In 1840, Secretary of State John Forsythe appointed William Weaver the first superintending clerk of the census. The elevation of Weaver, a man without statistical experience, to this new position signaled a shift in how the census would be conducted. Although U.S. marshals would remain responsible for enumeration efforts, the process would be more institutionalized.
Weaver was born in 1797 in Dumfries, Virginia. He became a naval officer at 16, serving from 1813 until 1824 and getting wounded before his ship was captured during the War of 1812. After his military service, he used his strong foreign language skills to secure a job with the State Department.
At the State Department, Weaver was secretary to the commission charged with adjusting claims of Spanish citizens on land in the United States. The border between New Spain and the United States, roughly defined by the Adams-Onís Treaty, remained in dispute until the end of the Mexican War. In 1834, he was commissioner to Mexico. He remained at that post until the 1840 census.
As “superintending clerk” of the census, Weaver was responsible for the design of the enumeration schedule, which crammed 80 columns on two-sided questionnaires. The poor design of the schedules led to enumerator error, including significant instances of healthy free blacks being misclassified as insane. Despite this error, John C. Calhoun, who replaced Forsythe as secretary of state when Andrew Jackson was inaugurated in 1841, reappointed Weaver (his initial term as superintending clerk had expired) to report the census results to Congress in 1842, where Weaver actively defended the findings of the 1840 census. Weaver died in his hometown, Dumfries, in 1846.
Joseph C.G. (Camp Griffith) Kennedy (1850-1853 and 1860-1865): Joseph Kennedy was a major innovator in census taking; specializing schedules to cover specific demographic areas and centralizing data processing to improve control and efficiency.
Born in Meadville, Pennsylvania in 1813, Kennedy edited two unsuccessful local newspapers before being named secretary of the United States Census Board in 1849. The board, created by an act of Congress earlier that year, consisted of the secretary of state (who had titular responsibility for the first five decennial censuses), the attorney general, and the postmaster general. When responsibility for the census was transferred to the newly created Department of the Interior, Kennedy was appointed its superintending clerk. He visited Europe in 1851, where he met with other public officials, studied various methods of census taking and urged adoption of uniform classification systems. Kennedy served as superintendent of the census until 1853. In 1858 he returned to prepare a digest of statistics of manufactures from the 1850 census. Kennedy was also superintending clerk of the eighth census, serving from 1860 to 1862, when the position was abolished.
Kennedy served as secretary of the United States Commission to the London World’s Fair. He helped organize the first International Statistical Conference, held in Brussels in 1853. In 1866, King Christian IX of Denmark awarded him a gold medal in recognition of his work in the field of statistics.
J.D.B. (James Dunwoody Brownson) DeBow (1853-1855): DeBow was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1820 and moved to New Orleans as a young man. It was in that city that he founded the popular DeBow's Review, a periodical focused on business and the economy. In 1848, he was named a professor of commerce and statistics at the University of Louisiana (now Tulane). Later that year, he was appointed head of the newly created Bureau of Statistics of the State of Louisiana.
Although Joseph C.G. Kennedy, a Whig, had planned and collected results from the 1850 census, he did not continue as superintendent when the 1852 presidential election removed his party from power. The incoming president, Franklin Pierce, appointed DeBow superintendent of the census, a position he held from 1853 to that census’s completion in 1855. DeBow published the census results, probably using some of Kennedy’s material, and a summarized version that came to be known as the Compendium, which was very popular for the time. His Statistical View of the United States is considered by some to be a groundbreaking publication in economic statistics. In the introduction to the Compendium, DeBow included the first map to be published by the Census Office. The report also contained several recommendations that would not be realized until some 50 years later – including the suggestion of a permanent census office. It also urged the use of trained, professional, enumerators instead of inexperienced workers appointed on the basis of political patronage.
During the Civil War, DeBow supported the Confederacy; in his publications he continued his long-established campaign to encourage Southerners to diversify their economic interests. He urged the Confederate States to invest in manufacturing, financing, insuring, and shipping cotton rather than relying on the northern states and Great Britain for these services. He died in New Jersey in 1867.