Few tasks were more daunting than a national census, as William Merriam would soon discover. Counting citizens was just the beginning. Policy makers needed to know how many were insane, feeble-minded, deaf, dumb, blind, criminals, and paupers. They needed social statistics of cities, information on public indebtedness, and valuation of properties, both personal and industrial.
And from farmers, the heart of the nation, much would be asked. To determine a farm’s size and value—the number and value of all animals, the acres planted and unused, how many acres were used for each fruit, vegetable, or grain, and more—310 questions were asked.
And it wasn’t just the United States that would be assessed. Information was needed on the populations of all cities, towns, villages, and boroughs covering the District of Columbia, Alaska, Hawaii, non-state territories, Indian territories, reservations, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Philippines, and Guam. Wherever the census applied, agriculture and manufacturing would be addressed in detail.
Despite the complexities involved, the only fraud exposed occurred in Maryland, where a male enumerator counted dead people as long as they had expired in the past year. Since other shady circumstances were involved, the man was arrested. Said Merriam about the Maryland case: “I have been simply amazed at the irregularities we have discovered. It will be the policy of this office to punish every offender.” And he followed through.
When all the returns were in, statistics provided by Merriam’s team determined the policies and needs that Congress would be addressing. The more data they received, the more impressed they were. From such partisan bodies as the House and Senate, a consensus emerged: Director Merriam had performed brilliantly.
At the end of each census prior to 1900, the bureau was disbanded, but change was in the air. Said the Washington Evening Star, “There is thought to be no doubt that President Roosevelt will nominate ex-Governor William Merriam as director of the permanent census bureau under the bill just passed by congress, and which will become law when the president signs it. Senator Charles of Wisconsin, who has been in charge of the census bill in the senate, said today when leaving the White House that it was the unanimous desire of the members of both houses of congress that director Merriam’s splendid work should be recognized by his nomination to succeed himself as director of the permanent establishment. The work of the office had been most satisfactorily carried on, and … it was hoped Merriam would stay and would retain his staff…. There is a strong belief among numerous congressmen that Director Merriam stands a good chance of entering the cabinet in the course of the next year.”
Speculation ran high that because of his expert job with the census, Merriam was about to become America’s first Secretary of Commerce, a new cabinet position. However, President McKinley had recently been assassinated, and his personal secretary, George Cortelyou, had worked intimately on behalf of Teddy Roosevelt, easing his transition to the presidency.
Merriam was also well connected with the new president. Their daughters, Mabel Merriam and Alice Roosevelt, had become best friends, and Teddy expressed admiration for the work done by Minnesota’s former governor.
In early 1903, amidst widespread media speculation, William held off deciding on the permanent census job, looking forward to perhaps assuming the new cabinet position. But Roosevelt ultimately chose Cortelyou.
Rather than accept the census position, Merriam tendered his resignation, informing the media he was accepting a lucrative offer to assume the vice-presidency of the International Mercantile Agency, a Dun-and-Bradstreet type company funded by wealthy New Yorkers and Canadians.
The Washington Evening Times expressed the common sentiments at Merriam’s departure: “He is regarded as one of the most successful executive officers of the government. It is said that in no government department has such a mass of work been done in the same time as that done by the census office during the taking of the last census. A force of over 3000 clerks was employed in the work, and it was hurried through to completion in record time.”
After leaving government service, Merriam tended to business interests in Minnesota and elsewhere. At various times, he was president of the Liberty Furnace Company, the Shenandoah Iron & Coal Company, and the Tabulating Machine Company. In the Hemet Valley of California, he purchased a ranch featuring apricot and walnut groves. The business was operated by his son, and the ranch served as a winter getaway for William and Laura.
For the next two decades, the Merriams maintained a high profile on the Washington social scene, mingling with presidents, ex-presidents, and all the power brokers in American politics. For years they spent winters in Florida. The rest of the year, they made rotating visits to their children’s families.
William passed away in Florida in 1931 at the age of 82. He is credited by some as the father of the modern census bureau, having convinced Congress it should have permanent status, and having implemented ideas, policies, and rules that remain the basis for today’s gathering of information.
Considering the controversy over Cortelyou’s appointment and Merriam’s resignation, it seems another odd coincidence that the Census Bureau today falls under the US Department of Commerce. (Hmmm … with all they are collecting, perhaps the NSA can issue yearly reports and render the Census Bureau obsolete!)
Photos: Wm. R. Merriam; a census report; headline (1903).