| from Increase of Population in the United States, 1910-1920|
by William S. Rossiter (1922)
An entire century separates the 1920 and 2020 censuses, so one might think that the issues surrounding the two surveys would be as different as night and day. But that is not the case. Immigration and political power were front and center 100 years ago, just as they are now.
Those most frightened by the prospect of the 1920 census were members of Congress. Today, the same fear strikes politicians as the 2020 results become known to the public. What is at stake is the number of seats that each party will hold in the House of Representatives.
Reapportionment is mandated by the Constitution to assure that representation reflects the distribution of the population. It occurs every ten years, based on census data.
In 1910, when the results of the census were made known, they revealed a total population of 92,228,496, with a rural population of 50,164,495 and an urban population of 42,064,001. Obviously, the next census would report a population greater than 100 million.
Equally significant would be the shift from rural to urban. The next census would show that—for the first time in American history—more people resided in U.S. cities than on farms.
Thus, in the wake of the 1920 census, the nation faced a major shift in political power. Reapportionment would dictate that less populous states would lose House seats and urban areas would gain them. In anticipation of the shift, some representatives declared, as early as 1917, that the census had little value. Others urged that immigrants be eliminated from the count.
Reapportionment brings a new political balance each decade, but it also marks significant cultural and social change. Hence the Anti-Saloon League hustled politicians to rush through Prohibition before the 1920 reapportionment, for a constitutional amendment to ban liquor never would have passed if urban legislators had been the majority in the House.
In fall of 1920, just seven months after the enumerators—as they were called—set forth with their questionnaires, the government revealed the first results of the new census. Ten states would lose seats (Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Vermont, and Virginia) while ten states would gain seats (New York, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas).
The prospect of such a drastic realignment led the House Census Committee to violate its constitutional duty by repeatedly postponing and voting down reapportionment after the final census report of 1920. It became a perennial dance.
In their first attempt to avoid reapportionment, Congressional legislators proposed a measure that would have enlarged the House to 500 seats from 435 seats. It was voted down.
In 1922, President Harding said he’d had enough and insisted that reapportionment occur by March 1923. That vote was deferred.
In 1924, the Census Committee announced that it would drop reapportionment because “adoption of the 1920 census would seriously affect agriculture and farming sections.”
In 1926, the House again rejected reapportionment, claiming that it was not mandatory. Despite public anger and editorial outrage, the House again refused to move on reapportionment in 1928.
Finally, after the results of the 1930 census were announced, the House acted. But the damage had been done.
If Congress had performed its duty, the Immigration Act of 1924 would not have been enacted. That xenophobic law set severe quotas for Eastern European immigrants and excluded most Asians, Indians, and Arabs. Prohibition probably would have been repealed far earlier than 1933 due to overwhelming opposition among city dwellers.
It’s evident that no one intends to postpone the reapportionment dictated by the 2020 census results. Observers have noted, however, that redistricting and voter suppression—already in full swing—will have the effect of maintaining the status quo. In this way, to put it politely, we may see further postponement of social transformation.
*This post is a revision of one that appeared in 2019.