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Beyond Numbers: A History of the U.S. Census

On this episode BackStory takes on the fascinating story of how Americans have counted themselves throughout our nation’s history.

As it turns out, the idea of doling out power based on the actual number of people in a region was an American innovation. The History Guys explain what was so revolutionary about the concept in 1787, and explore how assumptions about who counts as an American have shifted over time. They also look at the reasons the “undercount” became such an important issue in the 20th century, and consider the ways Americans’ suspicion of government has posed a challenge to the work of the Census Bureau. Over the course of the hour, they are joined by a scholar, former Census workers, and listeners interested in exploring the invisible backbone of American democracy: the U.S. Census.

[audio:Beyond-Numbers_-A-History-of-the-U.S.-Census.mp3]

Guests Include:

BackStory is a brand-new public radio program that brings historical perspective to the events happening around us today. On each show, renowned U.S. historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths. Over the course of the hour, they are joined by fellow historians, people in the news, and callers interested in exploring the roots of what’s going on today. Together, they drill down to colonial times and earlier, revealing the connections (and disconnections) between past and present. With its passionate, intelligent, and irreverent approach, BackStory is fun and essential listening no matter who you are.


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