Printable Version

John Quincy Adams's Report Upon Weights and Measures
Digital History ID 267

Author:   John Quincy Adams
Date:1821

Annotation:

In 1776 Thomas Paine wrote words that would continue to inspire future generations of Americans: "We have it within our power to begin the world anew." This idea, that the United States had the power to reorder the world on a more rational and moral basis, would inspire many efforts at reform. One of the most interesting involved attempts to fashion a system of weights and measures appropriate to a modern society.

In 1793, revolutionary France introduced a new system of weights and measures: the metric system. In fact, France did not fully embrace the metric system until the 1830s. But in 1819, the House of Representatives asked Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to recommend a system of measurement for the new American republic. Two years later, he issued his report, which recognized the strengths of the metric system, but recommended against it.

Adams argued in behalf of the English system of weights and measures, in part because it had been perfected by hundreds of years of practical experience and partly because it used units of measurement based on the human body. An inch, Adams noted, was about the length of a knuckle; a yard represented the length of an extended arm; and a mile represented the distance the ground remained visible before it passed over the horizon (which is why a mile was sometimes called an "eye"). All that government should do, in Adams's view, was to ensure the accuracy and uniformity of customary measurements.


Document:

Since the establishment of our national independence, we have partaken of that ardent spirit of reform, and that impatient longing for uniformity, which have so signally animated the two nations from which we descended [Greece and Ancient Israel]. The Congress of the United States have been as earnestly employed in the search of an uniform system of weights and measures....

France and Great Britain are the only nations of modern Europe who have taken much interest in the organization of a new system, or attempted a reform for the avowed purpose of uniformity. The proceedings in those two countries have been numerous, elaborate, persevering, and, in France especially, comprehensive, profound and systematic....

During the conquering period of the French Revolution, the new system of French weights and measures was introduced into those countries which were united to the empire. Since the severance of those countries from France, it has been discarded, excepting in the kingdom of the Netherlands....

In England, from the earliest records of parliamentary history, the statute books are filled with ineffectual attempts of the legislature to establish uniformity. Of the origin of their weights and measures, the historical traces are faint and indistinct: but they have had, from time immemorial, the pound, ounce, foot, inch and mile, derived from the Romans, and through them from the Greeks, and the yard...a measure of Saxon origin, derived, like those of the Hebrews and the Greeks, from the human body....

The philosophers and legislators of Britain have...despised the primitive standards assumed from the stature and proportions of the human body... They tasked their ingenuity and their learning to find, in matter or motion, some immutable standard of linear measure, which might be assumed as the single universal standard from which all measures and all weights might be derived....

After a succession of more than sixty years of inquiries and experiments, the British parliament have not yet acted in the form of law. After nearly forty of the same years of separate pursuit of the same object, uniformity, the Congress of the United States has shown the same cautious deliberation: they have yet authorized no change of the existing law....

If that universal uniformity, so desirable to human contemplation, be an obtainable perfection, it is now attainable only by the adoption of the new French system....

This system approaches to the ideal perfection of uniformity applied to weights and measures; and, whether destined to succeed, or doomed to fail, will shed unfading glory upon the age in which it was conceived, and upon the nation by which its execution was attempted.... In the progress of its establishment, it has often been brought in conflict...with the habits, passions, prejudices, and necessities of man.... But if man upon earth be an improvable being; if that universal peace, which was the object of a Saviour's mission...if the Spirit of Evil is, before the final consummation of things, to be cast down from his dominion over men, and bound in the chains of a thousand years, the foretaste here of man's eternal felicity; then this system of common instruments, to accomplish all the changes of social and friendly commerce, will furnish the links of sympathy between the inhabitants of the most distant regions....

It results, however, from [a] review of the present condition of the French system in its native country...that the time has not arrived at which so great and hazardous experiment can be recommended, as that of discarding all our established existing weights and measures, to adopt and legalize those of France in its stead....

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Copyright 2016 Digital History