Population and Constitution-Making, 1774–1792

Population figures used to determine representation in the first Congress (New York Daily Advertiser, 5 February 1788).

Estimates of population were an issue in politics and constitution-making throughout the Revolutionary Era. In the First Continental Congress in 1774, the Virginia delegates, whose colony contained about twenty percent of the population of the thirteen colonies, demanded more votes than such small colonies as Rhode Island. They were outvoted by the delegates who insisted that they represented colonies, not people. During the writing of the Articles of Confederation, the three largest states—Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts—demanded voting according to population, but again they were defeated by delegates who insisted upon the independence and the equality of the states.

The writing of the Articles of Confederation also involved a conflict between Northern and Southern states, for Northerners insisted that common expenses be shared according to total population, while Southerners insisted that slaves were property and should not be counted. The dispute was settled by evading the issue with an agreement to share expenses according to the value of land. The dispute was revived in 1783 when Congress proposed that the Articles be amended to share federal expenses according to population. Eventually, a compromise provided that three-fifths of the slaves should be counted in sharing common expenses. This amendment with the “federal ratio” was ratified by eleven of the thirteen states—only Rhode Island and New Hampshire did not ratify. Despite the fact that the amendment was not officially adopted, Congress used population in determining the quotas of federal expenses assigned to each state.

Such issues, in one form or another, were revived in the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Once more the large and small states fought over whether voting in Congress should be by equal state representation or be apportioned by population. Northern and Southern states battled over the issue of whether or not slaves should be counted in apportioning Representatives in the House of Representatives. Northern and Southern delegates also disagreed over whether prospective new western states should be represented according to population or should be prevented from ever having enough Representatives to outvote the original thirteen states. (See the debates in the Confederation Congress over the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in July 1787.)

Population was also involved in the debate over the number of states to be required to ratify the Constitution. Some delegates argued that seven states were enough, while others insisted that a simple majority of the states might make it possible for less than a majority of the people in the United States to ratify the Constitution. The requirement of ratification by nine states seemed to assure that the ratifying states would contain a majority of the country’s population. Nine was also a familiar number in that the Articles of Confederation required the approval of nine states in Congress for many important matters, such as declaring war, borrowing money, raising an army and navy, admitting new states to the Union, etc.

The Constitution included several compromises involving population. Each state was given two U.S. Senators. The compromise over representation in the House of Representatives was embodied in Article I, section 2 of the Constitution. It provided that Representatives should be apportioned “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 “other Persons” were the slaves. Sixty-five members of the first House of Representatives were apportioned among the states by the Constitution. However, the Constitution provided for regular reapportionment. Southerners were convinced that the South and the Southwest would grow faster than the North; and, despite the objections of most Northern delegates, the Southern delegates secured the insertion in the Constitution of the requirement for a national census every ten years with reapportionment of the House of Representatives after each census.

Americans had no more exact information about the population of the United States in 1787 than they had in 1774 when John Adams at the First Continental Congress noted in his diary that “it will not do in such a case, to take each other’s word. It ought to be ascertained by authentic evidence, from records.” No such records were available in 1787. The records of the Constitutional Convention contain a few scattered and partial estimates of population but no account of the actual numbers used by the Convention to apportion representation in the first House of Representatives.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

A question concerning the basis of apportionment was raised in the South Carolina House of Representatives in January 1788. On 17 January Charles Cotesworth Pinckney gave the figures which he said the Convention had used. His speech was published in the Charleston City Gazette on 24 January 1788. On 5 February the New York Daily Advertiser, without referring to its source, published the estimates with the statement that “the numbers in the different states, according to the most accurate accounts which could be obtained by the late Federal Convention were as follow.” By May 1788 Pinckney’s estimates had been printed in at least twenty-eight newspapers from Maine to Georgia. Since there is no evidence that anyone contradicted the figures given by Pinckney, it seems likely that they were the estimates used by the Convention.

The first census act became law on 1 March 1790, and the census was completed by February 1792. In the meantime, North Carolina ceded the Southwest Territory (Tennessee) to the United States in 1790; in February 1791 Congress admitted Vermont to statehood as of 4 March 1791 and Kentucky to statehood as of 1 June 1792. Congress assigned the two new states two Representatives each, pending the completion of the census.

The first reapportionment act became law on 14 April 1792. It provided that after 3 March 1793 the House of Representatives would consist of one member for every 33,000 persons in each state “computed according to the rule prescribed by the Constitution.”

Lists of population by town and county can be found at the end of each state volume of the U.S. Census of 1790. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution has lists of population by town and county for seven states: RCS:Md., 831; RCS:N.H., 497–501; RCS:N.Y., 550; RCS:R.I., 321; RCS:S.C., 525–26; RCS:Vt., 259–62n; and RCS:Va., 555–57. A valuable geographic/demographic resource is Jedidiah Morse’s gazetteer entitled Universal Geography of the United States originally published in Boston in 1797. Each entry for a state, county, or town in this gazetteer usually provides population data. Morse’s gazetteer is available in a modern reprint edition (1971) by Arno Press.

The chart linked below consists of five columns. Column I contains the estimates of population which, according to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, were used by the Constitutional Convention in assigning Representatives to the states. Column II gives the number of Representatives apportioned by the Constitution of 1787. Column III is derived from the Census of 1790. Column III-A gives “the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed.” (The Constitution, Article I, section 2). Column III-B gives the total slave population. Column IV was obtained by adding to the non-slave population given in Column III-A, three fifths of the slave population in Column III-B. Column V contains the number of Representatives assigned each state by the Reapportionment Act of 1792.

Apportionment of House of Representatives, 1787, 1792