Since 1790, people in the United States have participated in a census of the population once every 10 years. During the American Revolution, however, Connecticut conducted three censuses in only seven years, each in response to different demands created by the revolutionary struggle. The third and final count was conducted today in 1782, and unlike its predecessors, the information it sought hinted at future conflicts to come among the new and supposedly “united” states.
In 1776, Connecticut – and the Continental Congress, which initiated the first census request – was most interested in knowing the number of men available to serve in the military. It sought to distinguish people “under the age of twenty years from those who are above that age… (also) those in the militia, and all able-bodied men who do not belong to the militia, also those who are now in actual service.”
The second census, taken at the end of the hard winter of 1778-1779, shows how difficult it had become for the Provisions State to provide for the basic food security of the army. Following a near mutiny and threat to march on Hartford to demand food and supplies by starving Connecticut troops at their winter encampment near Redding, each Connecticut town was ordered to report the number of persons belonging to every family and the amount of grain in possession of each person, in order to “make provision for an immediate supply of Bread for the Army and the necessitous inhabitants of the state.”
Fighting the Revolution, and supplying the revolutionaries, inflicted a heavy toll on both people and resources. By 1781, the seventh year of the conflict, people in Connecticut – and other northern states – had come to feel they were being unfairly taxed to support the war effort. The problem, from their perspective, was that the Continental Congress requisitioned taxes, men, and supplies based on the number of white men in each state. Why, wondered both New York and Connecticut, weren’t states taxed based on the combined number of whites and blacks in their population, since enslaved men – and freemen too – were capable of producing goods needed to support the war? That approach would have put a much larger share of the revolution’s tax burden on southern states with large slave populations.
A November 1781 recommendation from Connecticut that Congress ask states to conduct a census of all persons – white and black – to apportion taxation requests fell on deaf ears. Congress, with Connecticut voting no, asked for a census only of states’ white inhabitants. Connecticut responded by conducting a count of (white) males above 50, males above 16 and under 50 (i.e. men of fighting age), males under 16, females, and, importantly, Indians and Negroes.
Even before the American Revolution was won, one could find in this disagreement over who should be counted the seeds of a debate that would over time lead to the United States Constitution’s infamous 3/5 clause (which counted enslaved African-Americans as 3/5 of a person for tax and voting purposes), and ultimately, the Civil War.
Researched by Pam Baldini
Connecticut State Library, “Colonial Census Enumerations”
United States Census Bureau, “Population in the Colonial and Continental Periods [pdf]”