Would it not be a useful and necessary pleasure for him to be able, in his own office, to review in an hour's time the present and past condition of a great realm of which he is the head, and be able himself to know with certitude in what consists his grandeur, his wealth and his strengths?"
Marquis de Vauban
This was the enticing argument a French noble placed before the French king Louis XIV in 1686 in support of the creation of an annual census. Note that nothing whatsoever was said about the benefits that might accrue to the people. At that time, there weren't any - the census, and other schemes to make resources in a realm legible, really had no other purpose than to make it easier for the state to exploit them. This fact was not lost on the peasantry and resistance to being counted was rife. Whether is was a census taker or a taxman, an agent of the state was seldom welcomed with open arms and sometimes they were even "disappeared."
In a modern state the census has other purposes as well. It is a means by which the state can gather statistics and do research in order to (one hopes) better serve the population through social programs or economic planning. It is also, in some democratic nation-states, a way to apportion representation. How many seats a region has in one chamber of the national parliament is based on census data. Something that makes the census an integral part of the democratic process.
The U.S. Congress is composed of two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The first is fixed with 100 members, two senators from each state. The second is also a fixed number (435 members) but the alloted number of representatives in different regions changes based on the rise or fall of population. Since 1790 census data is what determines how many representatives each district gets and keeps until the next one and then the cards are reshuffled once again. This is actually mandated by the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 2).
In the original US census in the late 18th century this is what was deemed worthy of counting:
The six inquiries in 1790 called for the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household of the following descriptions:All these people were counted and yet not all were given the same weight for the purposes of determining representation:
Free White males of 16 years and upward (to assess the country's industrial and military potential)
Free White males under 16 years
Free White females
All other free persons
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.Times changed and the census in 2010 bore little resemblance to the one conducted in 1790. However, the basic purpose remains: this is how political representation is allocated and that makes it a very serious exercise indeed.
Counting people within a national territory as large as the United States is a daunting task. Counting Americans not living within that national territory is an even larger challenge. According to the excellent study by Karen Mills (US Census Bureau): "Only twice in the first 100 years of census-taking began in the U.S. in 1790 were separate counts of the American overseas population reported in the decennial censuses." The first was in 1830 and the second in 1840. After that there was a 60 year hiatus until Americans abroad were once again on the radar of the state in the early 20th century. Who was counted? It was primarily Federal employees or US personnel on merchant vessels. It wasn't until 1960 that an attempt was made to count civilians living abroad. It was a voluntary census and does not seem to have been very successful. Another attempt was made in 1970 and was also unsuccessful. The only numbers that were reliable and used for apportionment were military and federal employees. Here was the count for those populations:
US Armed Forces: 1, 076, 431
Civilian Federal Employees: 67, 993
Dependents of both Military and Civilian Employees: 436,574
What happened with the civilian count? Though the US Census Bureau tried to get the word out through churches, schools, chambers of commerce, local media, embassies and the like, the response was very poor. Mills speculates on the reasons for this:
1. Many Americans abroad didn't get the word. If they lived in remote areas it's quite likely that they didn't even know there was census.
2. Dual citizens may have been unsure as to whether or not they should participate.
3. Many may have simply decided not to participate at all. No desire on their part to be counted. In any case, participation was strictly voluntary. Even today Americans outside the U.S. are not required to register with the local US Embassy, much less stand up and be counted. Many choose not to. Why is that?
I can only speak for myself here but the short answer I would give is that there is no perceived benefit to doing so and some suspicion as to what registration will be used for. I did register when I was living in Japan and then found my email inundated with travel advisories for places I had no intention of going. It was interesting to read but not terribly useful. In general the only reason I ever go the US Embassy in any of the places where I've lived (all modern democratic nation-states) is to renew my and the Frenchling's US passports. That has meant a trip about every 4 or 5 years. Now that my daughters are adults that will diminish to about once every 10 years. (At this time, I do not even know who the US Ambassador to France is though I'm dead certain there is one.) Other than that, as a long-term American resident of another developed country, my perception is that there simply aren't many services at the local embassy that fit my needs. If that perception is erroneous, I am more than happy to be corrected.
So the 1970 and 1980 attempts to count American citizens abroad were complete flops and the numbers simply weren't useable for apportionment except in the case of US military personnel and Federal employees.
That means that right up to the present day if the American president or Congress asks the American equivalent of the Marquis de Vauban, "So, what is the extent of our realm and the subjects (citizens) abroad and their resources in this globalized world?" The answer would be, "We have no idea." Only guesses, estimates, and speculation.
Is that the end of the story? Not quite because in 2001 the question of counting American civilians abroad came up yet again and this time it was at the request of Americans abroad themselves.
We'll talk about that in tomorrow's post.