Lesson 1: A Nation Counts

Grades 9–12

Strand: About the Census

Skills and Objectives

  • bullet Understand the origins of the census and its role in U.S. history
  • bullet Recognize the political importance of apportionment based purely on population
  • bullet Use a time line to place significant events surrounding the census in the context
       of U.S. history

Materials: A Nation Counts Student Worksheet 1, copy of the U.S. Constitution

Time Required: One 40-minute class period

    Getting Started

  1. Remind students that the origins of the U.S. census date back to the Constitution. Read aloud Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, which calls for a full count of the population in order to allocate seats in the House of Representatives. This full count of the population is called the census. Explain to students that this process of allocating the number of seats that each state has in the House of Representatives is called apportionment. Point out that the decision to base apportionment on population and not on wealth or land holdings was a boldly democratic move. The use of a census to determine representation, rather than simply counting the number of people to be taxed or to serve in the military, was also novel.
  2. Explain that the census has evolved over time. The first census had only a few categories of data, including population of men, women, and enslaved and free people. Every 10 years, Congress passed new legislation that funded and planned the next census. Over time, the census grew in scope, size, and complexity.
  3. Tell students that the census has recorded many profound changes in American history. For example, the census data of 1920 indicated that the country was more urban than rural. Those who valued traditional rural ways of life were concerned that cities would lure young people from farms. Inform students that in later lessons they will be discussing other changes revealed by census data.
  4. Share with students that the census has undergone many changes since its inception more than 200 years ago. For example, the 1870 Census used a tabulating machine created by a census official to better handle the growing stacks of data. For the 1880 Census, a Geography Division was opened to make mapping more accurate. And in 1902 the Census Bureau became a permanent federal agency under the Department of the Interior. Today, census data are not only used to allocate congressional seats, but also to make decisions about providing community services, and to distribute 300 billion dollars in federal funds to local, state, and tribal governments each year.
  5. Using Student Worksheet 1

  6. Distribute copies of A Nation Counts Student Worksheet 1. Explain to students that they will be creating a time line of events in the history of the U.S. census.
  7. Instruct students to conduct research on the history of the U.S. census using library or Internet resources such as www.census.gov/history.
  8. Tell students to also include historical factors that affected the census (such as the Civil War, westward movement, and immigration) on their time line, along with major statistical milestones, such as when the United States reached 10 million and 100 million in population.

    Answers to Student Worksheet 1

  1. Answers will vary, but may include: Basic tabulating machines were made in the late 1800s. Simple electronic calculators were made in the early 1900s. Computers played a major role in the second half of the 1900s. These advancements made it easier for people to be counted and helped lead to more accurate data tabulation.
  2. Answers will vary, but may include: Westward expansion would make it more difficult to count the population because the population would be more spread out across the country; new states and changes in population would lead to additional seats in the House of Representatives.
  3. Answers will vary, but may include: Some people might have seen the country’s growth in population and economy as a sign of a strengthening United States; conversely, people might have been wary of big changes such as immigration, urbanization, and industrialization as this would have potentially meant a draw on resources and fewer available jobs.

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