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Multiracial Identity and the U.S. Census
(Released January 2010)

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  by Tyrone Nagai  


Key Citations




Unlikely Bedfellows: Race, Census, and the United States Constitution


From the moment the U.S. was founded, contentious debate over race ensued, especially concerning definitions of white, black, and Native American (or "American Indian"). This debate had real consequences in terms of the way federal tax revenue would be distributed to states as well as the number of legislators each state could send to the capitol. As a result, the original draft of the United States Constitution includes provisions regarding race and the U.S. Census. What may come as a surprise is how closely the two are linked.

When the United States Constitution was being written in 1787, a compromise was reached between Northern and Southern states whereby three-fifths of the population of slaves would be counted in the official population. At that time the U.S. population was approximately 4 million people, and one out of every five persons was a slave. The need for the three-fifths compromise stemmed from Northern states being largely comprised of free persons and Southern states of free persons and slaves. The fundamental question involved the best manner to count slaves as a part of the nation's population. On the one hand, slaves could not vote. On the other hand, slaves made up the majority of the population in certain regions of the country.

constitutional convention
The Signing of the Constitution of the United States, painting by Howard Chandler Christy

Delegates from states opposed to slavery wanted to count the free inhabitants of each state and exclude slaves from the census. Delegates from states supportive of slavery wanted to count slaves by their actual numbers. Each group argued for a policy that best increased its chance of receiving economic and political advantages. The final compromise reduced the power of the Southern states by not counting slaves as whole individuals, but it did increase the Southern states' numbers relative to the Northern states. Thus, even though slaves could not vote, three-fifths of their total number was included in the population. In the end, the compromise became part of Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States 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.
What is interesting is that the sentence containing the three-fifths clause is immediately followed by a government mandate to conduct a "decennial" census (every ten years). It is as if the convention delegates knew that in order to implement the three-fifths clause, a regular census must be carried out. Thus, beginning as far back as 1787 we can see the importance of using the U.S. Census to collect data on race, i.e., "free persons" and "slaves." While free blacks lived in the U.S. at this time, the vast majority lived in bondage, so counting "free persons" and "slaves" was akin to counting people by race. In fact, the very first U.S. Census, conducted in 1790, only asked six questions: (1) Name of the head of the household, (2) number of persons living in the household, (3) number of free white males who are sixteen years old or older living in the household; (4) number of free white males who are under the age of sixteen living in the household, and (5) the sexes and (6) colors of all of the other persons living in the household (U.S. Census).

Over the next 200 years the U.S. Census changed to suit the political, economic, and social needs of the nation; however, one thing stayed the same. People were always counted as belonging to one racial category, even if they were racially mixed.

Much of the research discussed in the following sections focuses on black and white identities, though not exclusively. This is due in large part to the contentious relations between blacks and whites since the formation of the U.S., creation of the United States Constitution, and initiation of a decennial census.

Go To Multiracial Identity and the U.S. Census: 1790-1890

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