The First Census: America in 1790

Years: 1787-1790

Driving Questions

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the founders were forced to compromise on two major issues concerning how to determine representation in the new nation.


This one-day lesson uses data from the first national census to examine the two major issues that writers of the American Constitution were forced to confront:

  1. Whether to use a state's population to determine representation in government
  2. Whether enslaved population should be included in this process

Students will access state-level data from the 1790 census to observe patterns and to make inferences about which states were on opposing sides of each debate and why. Through secondary readings online, they will also become familiar with the events of the Constitutional Convention of 1789 and with the details of the Great Compromise and Three-Fifths Compromise.


Students will...

Lesson 1. The First Census

Learning Objectives

  • Students will:
  • Compare & contrast the state populations using census data maps from 1790
  • Make connections between secondary readings and census data maps
  • Gather evidence from maps to support specific inferences about the stance of states on issues of representation

Teacher Materials

  • Prompts for Discussing Images
  • Constitution Vocabulary Notes
  • "How to use gisforhistory.org" (tutorial)
  • Multiple Choice Questions (include in unit assessment)
  • Representation Essay Question (include in unit assessment)
  • Projector and computer with Web access

Student Materials


  1. Anticipatory Image
    • View Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States
    • Discuss observations, inferences, & questions about the painting (see Prompts for Discussing Images).
    • Briefly explain: This painting is praised as the best single picture ever created of the American Founding. Artist Howard Chandler Christy was commissioned in 1939 to produce a 20 X 30 foot version that still hangs today in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. This is an interactive version which reveals the names of all those present at the signing.

  2. Vocabulary
    • Define (or review) basic terms (see Constitution Vocabulary Notes)
    • Emphasize that the founders actually created a Republic, not a true Democracy

  3. Prior Knowledge Activation
    • Questions: How are your United States representatives chosen? How many representatives from each state get to serve in Congress? How is this number determined?
    • Students write down what they think they know

  4. Secondary Source Reading 1

  5. Data Gathering (Round 1)
    • Students use the 1790 census data map to answer Data Collection questions in Activity Packet 1

  6. Secondary Source Reading 2

  7. Data Gathering (Round 2)
    • Students use the 1790 census data map to answer Data Collection questions in Activity Packet 2

  8. Assessment:

    Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States

    Howard Chandler Christy's 1937 painting is one of the best-known images of the signing of the Constitution.


    Debates Within the Constitutional Convention

    Notes taken by Pierce Butler during the Constitutional Convention describe different plans debated by the delegates.


    The Three-Fifths Compromise (from Digital History)

    The paragraph of the Constitution describing the Three-Fifths Compromise, with background information form Digital History.


    The Great Compromise and the Three-Fifths Compromise (from PBS)

    Descriptions of both compromises from a PBS lesson plan.

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