The Corner

National Review

National Review and The Census Go Back a Long Way

National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.

This institution has a long — and at times, combative — history with the decennial duty, which we share now given the mandate’s current kerfuffles. In 1960, this magazine’s one-time editor, William Rickenbacker (the son of Eddie, and the co-author of The Art of Persuasion) took great umbrage when he was asked to complete a special questionnaire, one that census-takers would give — in addition to the regular census form — to every fourth home that year. This request, declared Bill, was nothing less than government invasion of his privacy. In the pages of the May 21, 1960 issue of National Review, in an article titled “The Fourth House,” Rickenbacker made his case:

But there is a second questionnaire, printed on blue paper, unconscionably long, uncivilly inquisitorial, and absolutely unconstitutional. This form, we are told, is being sent to every fourth house in the nation. My house was the fourth house, and I have studied this snooping questionnaire. It does not relate to any constitutional requirement that I know of; it has not been addressed to the population as a whole; and I shall not answer it.

Indeed, I have already torn it up. Some day, when the summer satrap of the Snooper State comes to ask me why I refuse to contribute my share of statistics to the national numbers game, I shall call for my lawyer. For my house claims protection under the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

“Go,” I shall say, “and report to your Snooperiors! Tell them that I shall resist this unreasonable search! I plead the Fourth!”

The Amendment, that is — the right against unreasonable searches, etc. Convinced of his standing, the blue form sent to Casa Rickenbacker ended in tatters. Why? Why not . . . just fill it out and be done with the annoyance? Even though it, well, here’s how Bill described its contents:

The first two pages of questions relate to the material possessions of the citizen. Is his house on a city lot, or a place of less than ten acres, or more than ten acres? Did the yield of nature provide sales of more or less than $250 last year on the less-than-ten-acre place, or sales of more or less than $50 for the more-than-ten-acre place? When was the house built? How many bedrooms? How is it heated? Is there a clothes drier? Washing machine? How many bathrooms? Whence comes the water? What form of sewage disposal? Is there a basement, a telephone? What is the telephone number? How many automobiles? What is the market value of the house? If this a trailer, is it mobile? If this is a rented lodging, how much is paid for electricity, gas, water, fuel? Does rental include use of land for farming?

I cannot imagine any relation between these questions and the constitutional requirement to enumerate the people. How lush grows the federal jungle! The tentacles of its creepers pierce the walls of all the homes in the land. How can a man be less than outraged by this destruction of his privacy? Consider the questions asked every member of the house!

What’s your name? What’s your relation to the head of the house? Where were you born? If you were born outside the country, what language was spoken in your home? What country was your father born in? Your mother? How many years of schooling have you had? Did you finish the last grade? Have you been to school since February 1st, 1960? When were you first married? If you’re a girl, how many babies have you had? Did you work last week? How many hours? Were you looking for work, laid off, absent because of illness, on vacation? When did you last work? What kind of work was it? Name of employer? How do you travel to and from work? Did you work last year? How much did you earn? In wages? In profits and fees? How much income do you have from social security, pensions, veteran’s payments, rent, interest, dividends^ unemployment insurance, welfare payments, and other sources?

But this was not some annoyance, some little thing for Bill Rickenbacker. Indeed, nothing was too little for him: When he passed away in 1995, he was in the early stages of writing a book about three-letter words. He thrived on little things. Especially ones that involved matters of principle. As for this blue / every-fourth-house / inquisitive long form — it was definitely not the census, he thundered.

We know that the long blue snooper is not the true Census. It asks questions not related to the information needed to fix proportional representation; it is distributed separately from the true Census questionnaire; and it is not distributed to the population as a whole.

Indeed, I suspect that the meddlers who designed the blue snooper attempted to compensate for this lack of legal authority by dressing the cover page in the rich and pretentious but borrowed and certainly specious trappings of Official Authority. Thus the seven stately stars, the names of governmental departments and bureaus, the letter from Chief Snoop Burgess, exhortations to answer every question, skip nothing, and return within three days! It all looks very official, doesn’t it? But if this is the official census, then what was that white questionnaire that went to all my neighbors?

His defiance made quite public, the Snooper State noticed. It reacted. The December 24, 1960 issue of National Review Bulletin reported what next happened:

A Federal Grand Jury has subpoenaed National Review’s Bill Rickenbacker to testify concerning alleged violation of the law relating to the 1960 Census. Rickenbacker, veteran National Review readers will remember, wrote an article (“The Fourth House,” NR, May 21, 1960) in which he claimed that the economic and sociological questionnaire sent to every fourth household was unconstitutional. He had refused to fill it in, and restricted his census duty to the short form that was sent to every household.

Rickenbacker contends, first, that the economic survey is an unconstitutional “search.” The Constitution authorizes a decennial Census only as an “enumeration” of the population for purposes of apportioning representation. Second, the survey constitutes an unnecessary invasion of privacy. The citizens have a right of privacy that the government can invade only for strictly necessary purposes. Whatever information of this sort the government really needs it can obtain without coercive and inquisitorial processes, just as many market survey and opinion polls do. And, third, it looks as if Rickenbacker (who, after all, is not the only one who objected to that snooping questionnaire) is being harassed for daring to publish his objections. In this light, the government’s action looks like a veiled attack on freedom of speech.

National Review agrees with this analysis, and gives whole-hearted support to the defendant. It’s about time someone went to court to find out whether there is in fact and law a limit to the power of Big Brother to peer into our private lives. If the Grand Jury bands down an indictment and the case goes to the courts, Rickenbacker intends to fight it right up to the Supreme Court. It might be fun to see Messrs. Warren, Douglas and Black find that the civil rights of the reactionary Mr. Rickenbacker have been abused.

But the Grand Jury saw fit to level charges. Don’t make a federal case out of it — the saying didn’t apply here. National Review (April 8, 1961) reported and opined:

On March 17, three months after his appearance before the Federal Grand Jury, Mr. William F. Rickenbacker was indicted for his refusal to fill out the special questionnaire given to every fourth house during last year’s census, National Review published the article (“The Fourth House,” May 21, 1960) in which he described the questions (how many bathrooms? how many cars? what appliances? how much income from various sources? what mode of travel from house to office?) and outlined his stand on the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search.

If Rickenbacker and his attorney, the illustrious C. Dickerman Williams, fail to have the indictment dismissed, the case will go to trial; and they are determined to carry it to the Supreme Court if necessary. It’s going to be an interesting cas

In large terms the issue is between the welfare state and individual liberty. For the welfare state. in order to pass around its benevolences, must know the intimate details of the lives, actions, and possessions of the individual citizen. If the welfare state is proven in the courts to be powerless to compel citizens to divulge such information, then the welfare state will have received some sort of a setback.

On the other hand, if Rickenbacker loses his case and takes his sixty days behind bars, it will have been made clear to all that this country has now passed into an advanced stage of central and coercive governmental power. When a man goes to jail for refusal to divulge, among other things, the number of bathrooms he has in his house, the lights have got pretty dim. In one way we almost — almost, mind you — hope that our associate editor and everyone else who did as he did will go to jail. As Thoreau said, in times when the government imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also the prison. And it remains true that one of the best ways to get rid of a bad law is to enforce it.

To federal court he went, and there . . . Rickenbacker lost. His sentence: a 60-day prison sentence, suspended, a $100 fine, one day of probation. He appealed. The federal Second Circuit heard it in October, 1962, in less than two weeks future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the no-dice opinion, which can be read here. The following January, SCOTUS denied Rickenbacker’s cert petition. All appeals were exhausted. National Review (January 29, 1963) editorialized, “Lost: One Civil Right.” From its wrap up:

As things now stand, it would appear that an American citizen has no privacy. The Federal Government can, apparently, ask him any question it wishes to ask him, and toss him in jail if he refuses to answer — and the Government doesn’t have to prove the reasonableness of its action, or its relation to existing legislation.

We’ve made a lot of progress, in the wrong direction, since William Pitt the elder said, “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England may not enter. . . .”

But there is a happy ending. Bill Rickenbacker was vindicated when the ensuing decade of prodding and instigating and agitating found the new Chief Snooper decreeing that 1970 census’s long form would be optional, not compulsory, for whoever lived in The Fourth House.

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