The census has been guided by authorizing legislation since 1790. Through the mid-nineteenth century, this legislation was very detailed: it listed questions to be asked and gave detailed instructions to the census-takers. Although the Secretary of State was the nominal national head of the early censuses, almost all of the work for the count was done on the state and local level by federal marshals. The lack of national leadership meant that census acts had to be very specific; it was the only way the federal government could assure that the marshals would return standardized information.
As census operations became more centralized and federalized in the latter part of the nineteenth century, legislation relating to the census became less detailed. Instead, it directed broad categories of questions to be asked, and left the actual design of census questionnaires up to the superintendent of the census.
The modern U.S. Census Bureau has been shaped by two pieces of twentieth century legislation: the 1902 legislation that made the Census Office a permanent agency and the 1954 legislation that combined the existing laws governing the Census Bureau's statistical programs and codified them in Title 13. Title 13 is the section of U.S. Code that governs Census Bureau activities to this day.
This section contains a sample of the legislation and executive orders affecting census activity throughout the history of the United States.