Can we count on you?

Students will analyze the language of the 1790 Census Act and discuss the reasons a census was necessary, as well as the possible reasons for the categories listed in the Census Schedule. Students will use the 1790 Census data as a reasonable representation of the U.S. Population at the time of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Base on that data, students will consider the impact of the 3/5 compromise as a means of determining representation in Congress for various states by evaluating their free and slave populations.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to discuss the reasons that a census was necessary in the U.S. and the conflict that lead to the 3/5th compromise and write a letter to their constitutional convention representative.



  1. Hand out the student worksheet and a copy of the 1790 Census Act with the modern translation.
  2. Have students work in teams to look at the original act and record what they see. (Examples of observations: It was approved in 1790, it comes from the House of Representatives, it is an act, which is a law (some will connect to the Stamp Act, Sugar Act…), it appears to refer to a person named A.B. Marshall who has to give something to the President and A.B. Marshall has to swear to that he will do something, some students may pick up that the word “enumeration” has something to do with counting, there is a chart at the bottom with categories, including slaves.)
  3. Have students read the Modern Translation for the boxed portion of the Act. Discuss and connect to the schedule.
  4. Students work in teams to answer questions 2A – 2F. (Teachers can refer to “Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States in the year 1790 for background information. Some notes of interest are that men were counted because of the potential need for military enlistment, as well as for establishing the centers of industry. Interestingly, this document also refers to the idea that the Constitution didn’t actually lay out the need to categorize or identify the population. It simply says that people need to be counted.)
  5. Have students work to answer question 3. Possible answers: To establish representation, To maintain a military, To understand where the wealthy families lived.
  6. Look at the maps showing the density of population. Have students identify the most heavily populated portions of the United States. These are primarily coastal areas and waterways, heavily weighted from Virginia up to New England.
  7. Ask why they think that the south is less heavily populated. (Possible answers – it was populated later, it is farmland, it’s too hot…) Note that Kentucky is part of the census count but is not identified on the map.
  8. Show the actual Census results table. Ask students to observe and record what they see. Ask them to identify any patterns they may see, or interesting relationships between categories or numbers.
  9. Guide them to recognize that slave population varies widely by state. Some have no slaves and some have large populations of slaves.
  10. On their own copies, have students calculate the number of free inhabitants of each state.
  11. Ask students to compare the numbers with the numbers on the bar chart from the MCPS curriculum, page 61. (They should notice that the bar chart in the curriculum is incorrect. It does not reflect the free population; it actually reflects the total population.)
  12. Using their calculations for Free Population, have the students use a colored pencil to draw a bar to show the actual free population, just below the black bar on the chart from the curriculum guide. There is a flipchart slide showing the resultant graph.
  13. Point out to the students that the relative populations become much close if slaves are taken out of the count. Use this as a point of discussion to investigate which states would want the slave population counted for A) Representation in Congress and B) Taxation purposes.
  14. Have students discuss and complete questions 4 and 5. Discuss as a class.


Students write a letter to their representative to the Constitutional Convention, expressing their point of view regarding the issue of counting slaves as part of the population.


“Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States in the year 1790”. Document 1790d-02. From the U.S. Census Bureau. (accessed March 1, 2012)

“Map showing in five degrees of density, the distribution within the territory east of the 100th meridian of the population of the United States, excluding Indians not taxed. Compiled for the Returns of Population at the First Census, 1790.” From the U.S. Census Bureau. (accessed March 1, 2012)

“An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States”, 1st Congress, Sess. II. Ch. 2. 1790. From the U.S. Census Bureau. (accessed March 1, 2012)

“Return of the whole number of persons within the several districts of the United States”. From the U.S. Census Bureau. (accessed March 1, 2012)

“Fifth Grade Social Studies, UNIT TWO, Economics: Creating a New Nation 1783-1800 AND TODAY” 1790 Census, Population. Rockville: Montgomery County Public Schools, Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs, Department of Curriculum and Development, 2002, pg. 61.

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