Americans have always had a healthy suspicion of government snooping. When George Washington’s administration undertook the first census in 1790, under the supervision of Thomas Jefferson, it only counted heads. Yet the public resisted on a massive scale.

At that time, Americans were widely familiar with the biblical anti-census story of First Samuel. King David told Joab: “Go through all the tribes of Israel from Dan to Bersabee, and number ye the people that I may know the number of them.” Joab cautioned against the King’s arrogance: “What meaneth my lord the King by this kind of thing?” But King David pushed ahead, and once eight hundred thousand had been counted, he was struck by the enormity of what he had done: “I have sinned very much in what I have done; But I pray thee O Lord, to take away the iniquity of thy servant, because I have done exceedingly foolishly.” The Lord sent a pestilence and seventy thousand died.

The modern census has brought a different type of pestilence: social engineering, affirmative action, economic “fine-tuning,” and subsidies and privileges galore.

In colonial times, demographic records were largely kept by the elders of the church; no government enumeration of all the colonies was ever undertaken. The Constitution, however, required a simple head count. Section 2 of Article 1 says: “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States . . . 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 who pay no taxes, and three fifths of all other persons.” The fraction and provisos were, of course, superseded by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

But over time, census questions became increasingly invasive. In 1810, the government asked about machinery, and in 1850, it counted every member of the family, not just the head of the household. At the turn of the century, the government employed an army of census clerks, and in 1940, a sizable rebellion was incited by questions such as “do you have a toilet or privy?” and “how much money [in general] do you make?” Senator Charles W. Tobey (R-NH) denounced this as intolerable, un-American, a violation of the Bill of Rights, and lacking legislative authority. A group of housewives in New York organized an anticensus broom brigade. A woman from Kenmore, New York, said she knew of seven hundred women ready to go to jail rather than reveal their incomes to the census-taker, and merchants in Washington, D.C., launched an “Anti-Snooping Club.”

In 1970, controversy broke out again. Inner-city residents refused to open their doors to census-takers, and a Wisconsin assemblyman urged constituents only to give their name, address, sex, and marital status. South Carolinian resistance was so strong that many enumerators resigned their jobs.

The 1990 census was more detailed and intrusive than any in history. It asked about ethnicity and race, the number of toilets, air conditioning, fuel and rent costs, how many children women have borne, how many times a person has been married, and more. Five out of six households answered 14-question forms; the rest answered an additional 19 questions, and a few had a total of 59 questions. Providing all this information, Americans were told, “is important to you, your community, and the Nation.”

Homeless advocate Mitch Snyder and his band of bums refused to be counted, undoubtedly because their inflated estimate of three million homeless would be revealed as a fraud. Regular Americans advanced a more legitimate objection: if one has the right to keep family affairs private from neighbors, why not from the government?

The Census Bureau claims to keep our answers confidential from other tax and police agencies, but our history is replete with broken government promises (for example, the 1933 confiscation of the people’s gold). The census promise could be wiped out in an instant by executive fiat, and all resisters labeled unpatriotic.

Thanks to the census, the government now has an up-to-date, computerized dossier on every American citizen, in addition to the one kept for revenue purposes. Even if census data isn’t turned over to more hazardous agencies, it will be used to govern us more comprehensively. The data are used to propagandize for the “non-traditional family,” so that it can receive legal encouragement; for more programs for the underclass, already devastated by the present welfare system; more public schools; favors to industry; job retraining programs; more redistricting along racial and ethnic lines; and for generally divvying up federal loot among pressure groups.

Some businessmen defend the census because they can use its data in marketing research. Indeed, as the director of the 1970 census said, it is “a gold mine for business.” But corporations are perfectly capable of gathering the information they need voluntarily—as they do already.

In April 1976, the last great census opponent. Congressman John Ashbrook (R-IL), introduced an amendment to “remove all the penalties, monetary as well as prison penalties, for refusing to answer a census question.” The government is going “far beyond the original intentions of the census,” he said on the House floor. “The Government already compels too many things under penalty of law. Let us draw the line here and now in this one area.”

The House agreed and voted overwhelmingly (248-140) for the Ashbrook Amendment. But, as is often the case, it was removed during the off-the-record conference stage.

Today’s penalty for not answering is $100, although it is virtually never imposed. In 1980, one man was harassed five times, but never gave in, and was never fined. Answering the form falsely, however, carries a fine of $500 for individuals and up to $10,000 for businesses.

Under the Constitution, the census should count adult heads and nothing more. No ethnic or racial questions. No income questions. No toilet questions. No who-is-living-with-whom questions.

Maybe by the next census, Americans will be reading the Constitution and First Samuel again. If so, they won’t put up with another decennial census and the pestilence it brings in its wake.