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U.S. Census Bureau History: 1788 Ratification of the U.S. Constitution

U.S. Constitution and flag from the US Department of Commerce

On June 21, 1788, the Constitution became the official framework of the government of the United States.

Delaware was first to ratify the U.S. Constitution on December 7, 1787. Eight more states were required to ratify
the Constitution—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina
and finally New Hampshire, which voted to accept the Constitution on June 21, 1788.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

After a contentious Constitutional Convention and months' long ratification process, the U.S. Constitution became the official framework for the government of the United States of America on June 21, 1788. State delegates wrote the Constitution during a 4-month Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia, PA. After signing the Constitution on September 17, 1787, they sent it to the states for ratification. Nine of 13 states were required to ratify the Constitution before it would be accepted as the nation's founding document. Delaware was first to approve it on December 7, 1787, followed by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire cast the ninth vote in favor of ratification. Today, the U.S. Constitution continues to guide our government, protect the rights of all Americans, and inspire democracies around the world.

The Articles of Confederation guided the government of the United States following the American Revolution. Adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, and effective beginning on March 1, 1781, this "first constitution of the United States" established a "league of friendship" between the 13 independent states. However, the strength of the states and weakness of the federal government nearly doomed the young nation. Without the voluntary agreement and cooperation of the states, the federal government found it was unable to effectively regulate commerce, levy taxes, control the printing of money, settle disputes between states, or conduct foreign policy. To avert a crisis between federal and state governments, Alexander Hamilton convinced the Confederation Congress to meet in Philadelphia, PA, to discuss revisions to the Articles of Confederation.

State delegates gathered at Philadelphia's Independence Hall in May 1787 to debate the strengths and weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. With George Washington leading the convention, delegates soon agreed that an entirely new document should be drafted. Between May and September 1787, the delegates crafted a 3-branch system of government with an executive branch headed by a president elected by the electoral college, a legislative branch, and an independent judicial branch. Some of the most heated discussion focused on the establishment of the legislative branch. Virginia delegate Edmund Randolph proposed a bicameral legislature with membership of both houses determined by the states' population. Delegates from the smaller states opposed the plan, rightly believing populous states would dominate government. William Paterson of New Jersey suggested a single house with equal representation for all states, regardless of population. The convention was deadlocked and delegates from the smaller states threatened to return home. On July 5, Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman proposed his "Connecticut Plan" in which all states would have equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation based on each state's population in the U.S. House of Representatives. Delegates voted to accept Sherman's "Great Compromise" on July 16, requiring the apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives following a regularly conducted census in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."

With the most contentious issues resolved, a Committee of Detail prepared a draft Constitution for delegates to begin reviewing in early August and on September 17, 1787, 39 of the Constitutional Convention's 55 delegates signed the U.S. Constitution. It was then sent to the states for debate and ratification votes. Between December 7, 1787, and June 21, 1788, the required 9 of 13 states ratified the Constitution making it the official framework for the government of the United States of America. All 13 states eventually ratified the U.S. Constitution by May 29, 1790.

The 1st Congress addressed the constitutionally-required census during its second session, passing "An Act Providing for the Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States" that President George Washington signed into law on March 1, 1790. Taken as of the first Monday of August 1790, U.S. marshals and their assistants traveled to every household in the 13 States, the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). Using schedules of their own design, they collected data about the number of free White males (under 16 years and over 16 years old), free White females, other free persons, and slaves.

Having completed the constitutionally-mandated head count of the nation's 3,929,214 people, Congress next had to agree on how many seats there would be in the U.S. House of Representatives and how to apportion them to the states. The Constitution offered only vague guidance, instructing "that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons." President George Washington vetoed a bill promoted by Alexander Hamilton (Hamilton/Vinton Method) and signed the bill favored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the Jefferson Method) that created 105 seats in the House of Representatives and set the ratio of people to seats at 30,000:1, and later adjusted to 33,000:1 by the April 14, 1792, Act Providing for Apportionment following the 1790 Census. Using the 1790 Census results, the U.S. House of Representatives was apportioned as follows: Virginia–19, Massachusetts–14, Pennsylvania–13, New York–10, North Carolina–10, Maryland–8, Connecticut–7, South Carolina–6, New Jersey–5, New Hampshire–4, Georgia–2, Kentucky–2, Rhode Island–2, Vermont–2, and Delaware–1.

For 235 years, the U.S. Constitution has successfully guided the government of the United States, safeguarded the rights of the states and American people, and ensured the nation would continue to evolve as society changed. As the United States has grown, the constitutionally-mandated censuses have not only aided in the apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives, they have also recorded the nation's demographic and economic evolution. You can learn more about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and the growth of the United States using census data and records. For example:

  • On September 17, 1787, 39 of 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the newly written Constitution amending the 1777 Articles of Confederation. Many of Thomas Jefferson's ideas were included within the final document, but he did not sign the Constitution because he and fellow Founding Father John Adams were on diplomatic missions in Europe. Included among the 39 signatories were: future presidents George Washington and James Madison; Connecticut politicians Roger Sherman and William S. Johnson; Delaware senator Richard Bassett; Delaware district court judge Gunning Bedford; businessman and Delaware's first postmaster Jacob Broom; Maryland politicians Daniel Carroll, James McHenry, and Daniel of St. Thomas Jennifer; Massachusetts delegate Nathaniel Gorham; New Hampshire senator and governor John Langdon; New York delegate Alexander Hamilton; North Carolina politician Richard Spaight; Pennsylvania politicians George Clymer and Jared Ingersoll; Pennsylvania's first governor Thomas Mifflin; Pennsylvania politician and diplomat Gouverneur Morris; South Carolina politicians Pierce Butler, Charles Pinckney; and original associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, second chief justice of the United States John Rutledge.
  • Article I, Section II of the U.S. Constitution states that, "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct." In accordance with this requirement, U.S. marshals and their assistants enumerated the nation as of the first Monday of August, 1790. The first census counted 3,929,214 people living in the United States. In accordance with the Constitution, the United States has conducted a population count every 10 years since then. By 1880, the population of the United States reached 50,189,209. The population topped 100 million by 1920; 200 million by 1970; and 300 million by 2010. Most recently, the 2020 Census reported the nation's population was 331,449,281. The Census Bureau predicts that the U.S. population will exceed 355 million by 2030.
  • Jacob Shallus was an assistant clerk to the Pennsylvania General Assembly working at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) when the Constitutional Convention met there from May 14 to September 17, 1787. When the Founding Fathers finished drafting the Constitution, they paid Shallus $30 (approximately $985 in 2023) to transcribe—or "engross"—the document onto four sheets of parchment. His finished document is on display at the National Archives' Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington, DC. Although professional calligraphers still produce beautiful, handwritten documents—including the White House's own Graphics and Calligraphy Office Link to a non-federal Web site—the majority of printed documents are produced by the nation's 21,521 printing establishments (NAICS 32311). The Census Bureau's County Business Patterns series found that these establishments employed 352,012 people for the pay period that included March 12, 2021.
  • The Constitution continues to grow and change with the United States and its population thanks to the foresight of the Founding Fathers who included an amendment process (Article V) into the document. Even before the Constitution had been signed, the Constitutional Convention's delegates recognized it needed modifications. Key among these modifications were 12 amendments championed by James Madison providing specific guarantees of personal freedoms and limited the federal government's power. Although Madison agreed that his proposed amendments would be addressed at a later date, delegates Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry refused to sign the Constitution on September 17, 1787, without this "Bill of Rights." On September 25, 1789, the 1st Congress of the United States approved the addition of 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The required three-fourths of the state legislatures ratified 10 of them and the Bill of Rights became part of the Constitution on December 15, 1791. Included among these amendments are the protection of Americans' freedom of religion, speech, press, and peaceful assembly; the right to bear arms; protection against unreasonable searches and seizures; right to a fair trial; and the reservation of all power not specifically assigned to the federal government to the states or American people. The two amendments that were not ratified by the states related to apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives and implementation of the Congressional Compensation Act of 1789. Congress later addressed apportionment by federal law. The Congressional Compensation Act amendment—which dealt with congressional pay raises—remained largely forgotten with just 6 states ratifying it by December 15, 1791. Although Ohio (May 1873) and Wyoming (March 1978) ratified the amendment to protest congressional pay legislation, it was not until a college student launched a national ratification campaign that support for the amendment gained traction. Maine became the 10th state to ratify the long-dormant amendment in 1983. Twenty-eight more states were needed to ratify the amendment before it was added to the Constitution. Michigan cast the 38th vote in favor of the 27th amendment, which became our most recent constitutional modification on May 7, 1992. [Researchers later learned that the Kentucky General Assembly ratified the Congressional Compensation Act centuries earlier in June 1792, making Alabama's ratification on May 5, 1992, the 38th deciding vote in favor of the 27th amendment.]
  • The constitutionally-required census of the population was conducted by U.S. marshals and their assistance every 10 years from 1790 through 1870. The 1879 Census Act required that specially-hired and trained enumerators conduct the census beginning in 1880. These enumerators were temporary hires as the Census Office only opened to conduct the census and closed following tabulation and publication of the census data. Recognizing the need to maintain a permanent cadre of trained census takers and staff, Congress legislated a permanent Census Bureau within the U.S. Department of the Interior on March 6, 1902. The Census Bureau moved to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903, and remained within the Department of Commerce following its separation from the Department of Labor in 1913. Today, the Census Bureau conducts more than 100 constitutionally- and congressionally-mandated surveys annually that collect data about the nation's population, households, businesses, and government entities.
  • Commercial printers John Dunlap and David C. Claypoole not only published the first copies of the Declaration of Independence on the evening of July 4, 1776, they also published the first printed copies of the U.S. Constitution. Along with publishing the Constitution in their Pennsylvania Packet newspaper, they printed 500 copies for use by the Continental Congress. Today, only 13 of these first printed copies of the Constitution are known to exist. Ten are available for public viewing at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA; Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, Bentonville, AR; Delaware Hall of Record, Dover, DE; Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA; Library of Congress (2 copies), Washington, DC; New Jersey State Library, Trenton, NJ; and New York Historical Society, New York City, NY. One of the three privately-owned Dunlap and Claypoole Constitution copies sold for more than $43 million in 2021.
  • Congress entrusted the U.S. State Department with the care and preservation of the Constitution soon after its signing. As the nation's seat of government moved from New York City, NY, to Philadelphia, PA, and then Washington, DC, clerks rolled and packed the Constitution (and other founding documents) in boxes and trunks, often storing them for years in storage rooms and attics. During the War of 1812, the British Army burned many public buildings in Washington, DC. While First Lady of the United States Dolly Madison saved artifacts at the White House—including the Gilbert Stuart's portrait of President George Washington—State Department clerks John Graham, Stephen Pleasanton, and Josias King, saved many of the important documents in their agency's care. These documents included the Articles of Confederation, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights—were loaded into linen bags and rushed out of the city ahead of the advancing British troops. The Constitution remained in the custody of the Department of State for more than a century until President Warren Harding transferred the nation's founding documents to the Library of Congress on September 29, 1921. The Librarian of Congress kept the Constitution in an office safe until its public exhibition on February 28, 1924. Following the Japanese December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the founding documents moved to vaults at Fort Knox, TN. The Constitution returned to the Library of Congress in 1944. An armed guard transported the Constitution from the Library of Congress to its new home at the National Archives on December 13, 1952. Most recently, the Constitution was removed from public display in July 2001 for conservation. It returned to public view in the National Archives Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom encased in a sealed, humidity-controlled, argon-filled, light-filtering display case on Constitution Day, September 17, 2003. Learn more about the history our founding documents, their care, and exhibition at Travels of the Charters of Freedom.
  • Americans associate the Thanksgiving holiday with the autumn harvest, turkey, family gatherings, and football, but did you know the first thanksgiving observed by the newly established United States celebrated the Constitution? On October 3, 1789, President George Washington designated November 26, 1789, as the first national day of thanksgiving to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution and founding of the United States of America.
  • In addition to the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights, the National Archives also houses millions of census records. While our founding documents are housed in the National Archives Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, millions of microfilmed and digital census schedules are available free of charge to researchers visiting National Archives facilities throughout the United States. Several organizations also make digital census records available via public libraries and subscription services. Learn more about accessing the publicly available 1790 to 1950 schedules at the National Archives Census Records webpage.

Painting of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

State delegates gathered in Philadelphia, PA, in May 1787 to discuss revisions to the Articles of Confederation. They soon decided to write an entirely
new constitution. Following a summer of contentious debate, 39 of 55 delegates signed the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787. With New Hampshire's
vote to ratify the Constitution on June 21, 1788, the document became the framework for the government of the United States of America.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Citing Our Internet Information

Individual census records from 1790 to 1950 are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, not the U.S. Census Bureau.

Publications related to the census data collected from 1790 to 2020 are available at https://www.census.gov/library.html.

Visit the National Archives Web site to access 1940 and 1950 Census records.

Decennial census records are confidential for 72 years to protect respondents' privacy.

Records from the 1950 to 2010 censuses can only be obtained by the person named in the record or their heir after submitting form BC-600 or BC-600sp (Spanish).

Online subscription services are available to access the 1790–1950 census records. Many public libraries provide access to these services free of charge to their patrons.

Contact your local library to inquire if it has subscribed to one of these services.

Did you know?

1950 Census Advertisement

U.S. courts ruled as early as 1870 that Congress has the constitutional power to require both an enumeration of the nation's population and the collection of other statistics.

In the 1870 Legal Tender Cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, "Congress has repeatedly directed an enumeration not only of free persons in the states but of free persons in the territories, and not only an enumeration of persons but the collection of statistics respecting age, sex, and production.

Who questions the power to do this? Indeed the whole history of the government and of congressional legislation has exhibited the use of a very wide discretion, even in times of peace and in the absence of any trying emergency, in the selection of the necessary and proper means to carry into effect the great objects for which the government was framed, and this discretion has generally been unquestioned, or, if questioned, sanctioned by this Court. This is true not only when an attempt has been made to execute a single power specifically given, but equally true when the means adopted have been appropriate to the execution, not of a single authority, but of all the powers created by the Constitution."

In 1901, the Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in United States v. Moriarity that the Constitution does not prohibit, "gathering of other statistics, if necessary and proper, for the intelligent exercise of other powers enumerated in the constitution, and in such case there could be no objection to acquiring this information through the same machinery by which the population is enumerated, especially as such course would favor economy as well as the convenience of the government and the citizens."

The courts more recently reaffirmed the constitutionality of the Census Bureau's collection of data to support government programs and operations in Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives (1999), and Morales v. Daley (S.D. Tex. 2000).

This Month in Census History

June 1 was Census Day in 1830.

President John Quincy Adams recommended moving Census Day from August to June in his December 2, 1828, address to Congress. The move gave U.S. marshals conducting the censuses more time to complete the count.

The 1830 Census was also the first to use printed schedules to collect census data. Prior to 1830, marshals used whatever paper they had and designed their own forms (1790, 1800, 1810, 1820) which could complicate clerks' task of compiling the data.

June 1 (June 2 in 1890) remained Census Day until 1910, when it moved to April 15. Congress moved Census Day to January 1 in 1920. The Census Bureau has conducted the decennial census as of April 1 since 1930.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: May 26, 2023