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Census Catechism

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Robert Green Ingersoll

I SUPPOSE the Government has a right to ask all of these questions, and any more it pleases, but undoubtedly the citizen would have the right to refuse to answer them. Originally the census was taken simply for the purpose of ascertaining the number of people — first, as a basis of representation; second, as a basis of capitation tax; third, as a basis to arrive at the number of troops that might be called from each State; and it may be for some other purposes, but I imagine that all are embraced in the foregoing.

The Government has no right to invade the privacy of the citizen; no right to inquire into his financial condition, as thereby his credit might be injured; no right to pry into his affairs, into his diseases, or his deformities; and, while the Government may have the right to ask these questions, I think it was foolish to instruct the enumerators to ask them, and that the citizens have a perfect right to refuse to answer them. Personally, I have no objection to answering any of these questions, for the reason that nothing is the matter with me that money will not cure.

I know that it is thought advisable by many to find out the amount of mortgages in the United States, the rate of interest that is being paid, the general indebtedness of individuals, counties, cities and States, and I see no impropriety in finding this out in any reasonable way. But I think it improper to insist on the debtor exposing his financial condition. My opinion is that Mr. Porter only wants what is perfectly reasonable, and if left to himself, would ask only those questions that all people would willingly answer.

I presume we can depend on medical statistics — on the reports of hospitals, etc., in regard to diseases and deformities, without interfering with the patients. As to the financial standing of people, there are already enough of spies in this country attending to that business. I don’t think there is any danger of the courts compelling a man to answer these questions. Suppose a man refuses to tell whether he has a chronic disease or not, and he is brought up before a United States Court for contempt. In my opinion the judge would decide that the man could not be compelled to answer. It is bad enough to have a chronic disease without publishing it to the world. All intelligent people, of course, will be desirous of giving all useful information of a character that cannot be used to their injury, but can be used for the benefit of society at large.

If, however, the courts shall decide that the enumerators have the right to ask these questions, and that everybody must answer them, I doubt if the census will be finished for many years, There are hundreds and thousands of people who delight in telling all about their diseases, when they were attacked, what they have taken, how many doctors have given them up to die, etc., and if the enumerators will stop to listen, the census of 1890 will not be published until the next century. —

The World, Now York, June 1890.

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