One might ask why the Emperor of the West is in such a hurry to get the 2020 census data.
The bogus U.S. census numbers showing slavery’s ‘wonderful influence’ on the enslaved By Peter Whoriskey Oct. 17, 2020 at 7:30 a.m. EDT
Americans have long looked to the decennial census for truths about themselves, and the 1840 version presented them with an improbable and incendiary notion.
Slavery was good for Black people, the figures indicated, and freedom led to insanity.
Specifically, free Black people were far more likely than the enslaved to succumb to insanity. “Insanity and idiocy” was ten times more common among free Black people than among those who were slaves.
What else could this mean, advocates of slavery asked, but that Black people were mentally unsuited for freedom? The idea quickly spread to newspapers across the United States, the reports of elite European scientists and the halls of Congress.
“Slavery has a wonderful influence upon the development of moral faculties and the intellectual powers,” Edward Jarvis, a Louisville-based doctor wrote in a prominent medical journal, one of many such reports citing the census. It saves people “from some of the liabilities and dangers of active self-direction.”
As partisans battle this year over how to conduct the 2020 Census, the controversy over the 1840 count illustrates the harm that can come from bad numbers — and how hard it can be to correct a conclusion once it has been endowed with the government’s authority.
The numbers in the 1840 census were profoundly flawed, it would turn out, but for several years, advocates of slavery exploited them to portray Black people as better off enslaved.
Though often little more than a footnote in history texts, the debate over the 1840 census featured a cast of notables, involving, on the pro-slavery side, John C. Calhoun and on the other, John Quincy Adams and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the influential anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Its findings became a rhetorical weapon for slavery’s advocates, and for abolitionists, a source of exasperation.
For the pro-slavery side, Stowe wrote in 1853, the census “has been the very beetle, sledge-hammer and broad-axe.”
They frequently cited the findings, she said, with a “triumphant flourish,” exclaiming, “‘There, sir, what do you think of the census of 1840? You see, sir, the thing’s been tried, and it’s no go’...as it’s down in the census, and as ‘figures never lie,’ we must believe our own eyes.” ‘Insane and idiotic’
While moral controversies are often waged by uncompromising personalities, the rise and fall of the 1840 Census turns on what may be a rarer type in history — a person who admits a mistake and switches sides.
Edward Jarvis, the Louisville-based doctor who had written so cavalierly of the census and slavery’s “wonderful influence” in July 1842, recognized within 18 months that the numbers he had cited were at odds with reality.
He then waged a decade-long campaign for their correction, marshalling assistance from the fledgling American Statistical Association and John Quincy Adams, then a member of the House of Representatives.
Ultimately, he failed to move the government to correct or retract the numbers, but it is through his work that we know how badly flawed they were.
Jarvis had been drawn to the census through his interest in using population statistics to understand mental health, and the census of 1840 was the first to have a separate count for what were then called the “insane and idiotic.” Idiotic was the term used then for an intellectual disability.
Jarvis aimed, he wrote in his diary, to “show that insanity results in part from civilization.”