Black Demographic Data, 1790-1860: A Sourcebook

By Clayton E. Cramer | Go to book overview
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The 1840 census has long been a source of controversy. The 1840 census was the first census to give detailed figures on the number of "insane & idiots" (as the 1840 census headers listed the mentally ill, retarded, and senile). Free blacks were much more often found in this category than were slaves, and as one went north, the frequency of "insane & idiot" free blacks increased "with virtual mathematical precision."1 To the defenders of slavery, this was clear evidence that blacks were not suited to freedom, and that slavery was a fundamentally humane system--as opposed to Northern freedom.

Perhaps because of how defenders of slavery used the results, most of the existing scholarly works about the 1840 census strongly imply that the State Department falsified the statistics on mental retardation and insanity. Hyman Alterman, for example, points to the disproportionate number of "insane & idiot" free blacks in the North and then informs his reader, "The published results of the census had the mysterious notation, 'corrected at the State Department.'"2 While Alterman never directly claims that the State Department intentionally altered the data for political purposes, he clearly implies it.

Alterman, 270.
Alterman, 270.


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