John Quincy Adams’ Report Upon Weights and Measures

John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818, during the period in which he was working on his report on weights and measures

John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818

John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, liked to measure things – the width of a river, the distance between two points – by counting his steps. “I have found, by experiments frequently repeated, that my ordinary pace is two feet six inches and eighty-eight one-hundredths of an inch, or about twenty-nine French inches, and that in my ordinary pace I walk one hundred and twenty steps to a minute.” (1) When Adams became Secretary of State in 1817, his fascination with measurements coincided with the desire of Congress to establish a uniform standard for weights and measures across the United States. After three-and-a-half years of obsessive work (which frustrated his wife Louisa), John Quincy Adams produced a Report Upon Weights and Measures that he believed would be his most important literary accomplishment.

Fixing the standard of weights and measures

The importance of everyone in the country using the same system of weights and measures was recognized by the founders of the United States. The Constitution gave Congress the power to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 5). However, there was no agreement as to which weights and measures should become the national standard. Each of the original thirteen states was using its own weights and measures, which differed from those used by other states. No Congressman wanted to be blamed for changing his constituents’ customary way of measuring things.

All of the early presidential messages to Congress included an appeal for legislation to establish a uniform system of weights and measures. In 1790, at the urging of George Washington, the House of Representatives asked Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to draw up a plan. Jefferson put forward two options: one a refinement of the existing English system of weights and measures; the other a new decimal system based on the foot. Jefferson’s report was transmitted by the House to the Senate, where a select committee concluded that, since Britain and France were each considering national standards of measure which could become a universal standard, it was not desirable, “at present, to introduce any alteration in the measures and weights which are now used in the United States.” (2) In 1796, the House passed “An act directing certain experiments to be made to ascertain uniform standards of weights and measures for the United States,” but the bill was never taken up by the Senate.

In his December 1816 message to Congress, President James Madison again called for action. In response, in March 1817 the Senate passed a resolution directing the Secretary of State to prepare “a statement relative to the regulations and standards for weights and measures in the several States, and relative to the proceedings in foreign countries, for establishing uniformity in weights and measures, together with such propositions relative thereto, as may be proper to be adopted in the United States.” (3)

When John Quincy Adams took up his post as Secretary of State in the administration of President James Monroe in September 1817, he found the Senate’s instruction waiting for him. He embraced the task with enthusiasm.

The measurement inquiries of John Quincy Adams

An apothecary's balance

An apothecary’s balance

John Quincy Adams had been interested in the subject for many years. During his post as the US Minister to Russia (1809-1814), Adams began – as a hobby – an investigation of Russian weights and measures, as described in his diary entry of June 30, 1810.

I wrote something this day but still gave an undue proportion of the time to my inquiries concerning weights, measures, and coins. My precise object is to ascertain those of Russia, with their relative proportions to those used in America. But I find it extremely difficult, and indeed, as yet have not succeeded in fixing accurately my ideas on the subject. I procured some time since a Russian nest of brass weights, from one pound to a quarter of a zolotnik, and a pair of scales. I have compared them with an apothecary’s scale and weights which we brought with the medicine-chest from America. By this comparison I found that the Russian pound was equal to 6312¾ grains [troy]. But all the smaller Russian weights were incorrect, some weighing more, and some less, than the proportion. The scales, too, are so coarsely made that they scarcely indicate any variation of less than a quarter zolotnik, which is the smallest of the weights they use among the silversmiths. My apothecary’s balance was much more accurate, and much more sensible to small weights. There are, however, differences of full half a grain in several of them.

Maudru, in his Russian Grammar, says that the Russian pound is equal to four hundred and nine grammes of the new French standard, and Webster, in his Dictionary gives 15.44 grains troy weight for the gramme. Supposing both these correct, the Russian pound will be equal to 6316.596 grains troy – about three and three-quarters of a grain more than I found it by the comparison of the weights and scales. But I had no English weight of more than two drachms, or 120 grains, and all my apothecary’s weights together amount only to 301¾ grains. I was therefore obliged, by means of these, to make other heavier weights, to compare with the larger portions of the Russian pound, and, having no smaller weight than one-quarter of a grain, I could come within that only by conjecture. These circumstances, together with the slight difference in my smallest weights, accounting for the difference of three and three-quarter grains between my experiment and the numbers given by Maudru and Webster, I have considered them as correct, and accordingly take the Russian pound to be = to 6316.596 grains English troy weight. (4)

By 1812, Adams was comparing Russian and English weights, measures and coins to those of the metric system, which had been introduced in France in 1799.

I have been for years uncertain of the exact comparison between the length of the French and English foot; which is yet essential to ascertain that of all the new French weights, measures and coins. (5)

His study of metric measures “absorb[ed] all the time that has no indispensable occupation, and even encroach[ed] much upon that which ought to have one.” (6) Adams’ wife Louisa complained:

Mr. Adams too often passed [the evening] alone studying weights and measures practically that he might write a work on them: no article however minute escaped his observation and to this object he devoted all his time. (7)

The Congressional resolution gave Adams the opportunity to write his work.

Swallowed up in calculations

The State Department inherited by John Quincy Adams was small, with no more than a dozen employees. Adams was responsible for consulting with the President, making departmental decisions, meeting with foreign dignitaries, writing instructions to American ministers abroad, drafting treaties, supervising the department’s day-to-day operations, running the patent office, meeting with Congressmen, responding to Congressional inquiries, recording Congressional laws and resolutions, and overseeing the census. With such a heavy workload, Adams had to undertake the weights and measures report in the little free time he had, which meant early in the morning and on vacations.

Adams began by reading Jefferson’s 1790-91 report, and by asking the states to submit information about their weights and measures. By the summer of 1818, he was drafting his report, though he found his time so absorbed by “the researches necessary to prepare a draft upon weights and measures…that I can make scarce any progress with the report itself.” (8) He was also frustrated by the unrelenting demands of his position. In November 1818 he wrote:

The pressure of current business upon me is so unintermitting, that since the close of the last session of Congress I have scarcely been able to write a line upon this subject [weights and measures], and here is another session to commence in ten days, when everything will be still more hurried. (9)

As the summer of 1819 approached, Adams hoped he would “have leisure, or at least some control of my own time” to work on the report, but he met “with almost constant disappointment.” (10) In July, he finally found time to devote to the report, which meant being drawn into a rabbit hole.

I was swallowed up in calculations and meditations upon coins, currency, and exchange, the only excuse for which that I can devise is the connection of the subject with weights and measures, upon which I am called to report to the Senate….

The deeper I go, the deeper and darker appears the deep beneath, and although the want of time will soon force me to break away from the subject without even finding its bottom, yet it now fascinates and absorbs me to the neglect of the most necessary business. (11)

After further interruptions, in the summer of 1820 Adams set out to write his report.

I now sit down, the moment after rising, to my task, in which I write slowly, with great difficulty, and much to my own dissatisfaction. My division of the subject remains as I struck it out on first beginning the report three years since. But my plan and many of my opinions vary as I write. My views of the subject multiply. Different aspects present themselves of the same materials. I approve and disapprove of the new French system. I admire its design and perseverance with which it has been pursued. I think it erroneous in some of its principles and impracticable in many of its provisions. The enquiry into natural standards has led me into speculations which by many may be thought ridiculous or absurd. I am going into a commentary upon the old English statutes relating to weights and measures, which will be dry and tedious, and am in constant danger of consuming the little time left me for preparing the report without being ready for it at the next meeting of Congress. (12)

Instead of going on vacation with his family, John Quincy Adams spent July and August in steamy Washington working on the report, to the frustration of both his father and his wife. On August 18, Louisa wrote to their son John Adams:

Your father [is] more deeply immersed in business than ever and less capable of participating in any domestic enjoyments…his whole mind is so intent on weights and measures that you would suppose his very existence depended on this report. (13)

In the fall of 1820, the Adams family moved out of the house they had been renting at 4½ and C streets and into a brick townhouse at 1333 F Street. While Louisa managed a renovation that nearly doubled the size of the house, John Quincy Adams continued to work on his report. On October 25, he wrote:

We are repairing the house into which we have removed and at the same time building an addition to it, which multiplies inconveniences while my Report upon weights and measures allows me scarcely a moment even for thinking of anything else. (14)

A mass of knowledge

On February 22, 1821, three and a half years after beginning the project, John Quincy Adams submitted his Report upon Weights and Measures to Congress. Former president John Adams wrote to his son:

Though I cannot say and perhaps shall never be able to say that I have read it, yet I have turned over Leaves of it enough to see that it is a Mass of historical, philosophical, chemical, mathematical and political knowledge which no Industry in this country but yours could have collected in so short a time. (15)

It was a massive work, including a detailed history of weights and measures in France, England and the various states of the union. Despite all the information presented, John Quincy Adams recommended that “no innovation upon the existing weights and measures should be attempted.” (16) This was not because he thought new uniform measures were undesirable. Rather, he doubted whether Congress had the authority to undertake such an overreaching project. “The means of execution for exacting and obtaining the conformity of individuals to the ordinances of the law, in the case of weights and measures, belong to that class of powers which…are reserved to the separate states.” (17) And if Congress did try to fix a standard, it would be up to the states to implement and enforce “a law of great and universal innovation upon the habits and usages of the people. Of such a law the transgressions could not fail to be numerous: any doubt of the authority of the legislator would stimulate to systematic resistance against it: and the power of enforcing its execution being in other hands, naturally disposed to sympathise with the offender, the whole system would fall into ruin, and afford a new demonstration of the impotence of human legislation against the laws of nature, in the habits of man.” (18)

Weights and measures may be ranked among the necessaries of life, to every individual of human society. They enter into the economical arrangements and daily concerns of every family. They are necessary to every occupation of human industry; to the distribution and security of every species of property; to every transaction of trade and commerce; to the labours of the husbandman; to the ingenuity of the artificer; the studies of the philosopher; to the researches of the antiquarian; to the navigation of the mariner, and the marches of the soldier; to all the exchanges of peace, and all the operations of war. The knowledge of them, as in established use, is among the first elements of education, and is often learnt by those who learn nothing else, not even to read and write. This knowledge is riveted in the memory by the habitual application of it to the employments of men throughout life. Every individual, or at least every family, has the weights and measures used in the vicinity, and recognized by the custom of the place. To change all this at once, is to affect the well-being of every man, woman, and child, in the community. It enters every house, it cripples every hand. No legislator can attempt it with any prospect of success, or any regard to justice, but upon two indispensable conditions: one, that he shall furnish every individual citizen easy access to the new standards which take the place of the old ones; and the other, that he shall enable him to know the exact proportion between the old and the new. … But, were the authority of Congress unquestionable to set aside the whole existing system of metrology, and introduce a new one, it is believed that the French system has not yet attained that perfection which would justify so extraordinary an effort of legislative power at this time. (19)

Adams thought it would be great if Britain, France, Spain and the United States (all of whom were considering new weights and measures) could have a uniform system among them. “Could they agree upon one result, the advantages of that agreement would be great to each of them separately, and still greater in all their intercourse with one another.” He proposed that the President “be requested to communicate…with the governments of those nations, upon the subject of weights and measures, with reference to the principles of uniformity as applicable to them.” He didn’t have in mind a treaty, “but it is hoped that the comparison of ideas, and the mutual reciprocation of observation and reflection, may terminate in concurrent acts, by which, if even universal uniformity should be found impracticable, that which would be obtained by each nation would at least approximate nearer to perfection.” (20)

In the meantime, if Congress wanted to do something to establish greater uniformity of weights and measures within the United States, Adams recommended that it “declare what are the weights and measures to which the laws of the United States refer as the legal weights and measures of the Union,” and “procure positive standards of brass, copper, or such other materials as may be deemed advisable, of the yard, bushel, wine and beer gallons, troy and avoirdupois weights; to be deposited in such public office at the seat of government as may be thought most suitable.” (21) He also recommended giving exact duplicates of the metal standards to the governments of every state and territory.

For the purposes of the law, it will be sufficient to declare that the English foot, being one-third part of the standard yard of 1601 in the exchequer of Great Britain, is the standard unit of the measures and weights of the United States; that an inch is a twelfth part of this foot; that thirty-two cubic feet of spring water, at the temperature of 56 degrees of Fahrenheit’s thermometer, constitute the ton weight of 2,000 pounds avoirdupois; that the gross hundred of avoirdupois weight consists of 112 pounds…; that the troy pound consists of 5,760 grains, 7,000 of which grains are of equal weight with the avoirdupois pound; that the bushel is a vessel of capacity of 2,150.42 cubic inches, the wine gallon a measure of 231, and the ale gallon a measure of 282 cubic inches.

The various modes of division of these measures and weights, the ell measure, and the application of the foot to itinerary, superficial and solid measure, producing the perch, rood, furlong, mile, acre, and cord of wood, may be left to the established usage, or specifically declared, as may be judged most expedient. The essential parts of the whole system are, the foot measure, spring water, the avoirdupois pound, and the troy grain. (22)

Should the fortunate period arrive when the improvement in the moral and political condition of man will admit of the introduction of one universal standard for the use of all mankind, it is hoped and believed that the [platinum] metre will be that measure. But, as the principle respectfully recommended in this report is that of excluding all innovation or change, for the present, of our existing weights and measures, it is with a view to uniformity that the preference is given, for the choice of a new standard, to the same metal of which that measure consists which has been the standard of our forefathers from the first settlement of the English colonies, and is exactly coeval with them. (23)

John Quincy Adams commented on the final report in his diary:

It is, after all the time and pains that I have bestowed upon it a hurried and imperfect work; but I have no reason to expect that I shall ever be able to accomplish any literary labour more important to the best ends of human exertion, public utility, or upon which the remembrance of my children may dwell with more satisfaction. (24)

Louisa wrote:

Thank God we hear no more of Weights and Measures. (25)

Congress took no action on the report. Three years later, Britain adopted the system of imperial units, abandoning the English units John Quincy Adams had championed in his Report Upon Weights and Measures.

And, with the report out of the way, John Quincy Adams was free to concentrate fictionally on his next challenge: dealing with Napoleon’s arrival in the United States after his escape from St. Helena.

You might also enjoy:

John Quincy Adams’ Swimming Adventures

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

The Inauguration of John Quincy Adams

The New Year’s Day Reflections of John Quincy Adams

The John Quincy Adams Portrait by Gilbert Stuart & Thomas Sully

Louisa Adams, Social Charmer

A Skeleton City: Washington DC in the 1820s

Last Words of Famous People

  1. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1873), p. 353.
  2. Ralph W. Smith, The Federal Basis for Weights and Measures, National Bureau of Standards Circular 593 (Washington, 1958), p. 5.
  3. John Quincy Adams, Report upon Weights and Measures (Washington, 1821), p. 5.
  4. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1873), p. 353.
  5. Ibid., p. 353.
  6. Ibid., p. 354.
  7. Jane Hampton Cook, American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence (Nashville, 2013), p. 185
  8. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. IV (Philadelphia, 1875), p. 123.
  9. Ibid., p. 159.
  10. Ibid., pp. 375-376.
  11. Ibid., pp. 402-403.
  12. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. V (Philadelphia, 1875), pp. 402-403.
  13. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Adams, 18 August 1820,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3828.
  14. John Quincy Adams diary 31, 1 January 1819 – 20 March 1821, 10 November 1824 – 6 December 1824, page 437 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2004. http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries
  15. “From John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 10 May 1821,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3898. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3898
  16. John Quincy Adams, Report upon Weights and Measures (Washington, 1821), p. 125.
  17. Ibid., p. 120.
  18. Ibid., p. 121.
  19. Ibid., pp. 119-120.
  20. Ibid., p. 125.
  21. Ibid., p. 125.
  22. Ibid., pp. 126-127.
  23. Ibid., pp. 132-133.
  24. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. V, pp. 132-133.
  25. Margery M. Heffron, Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams (New Haven, 2014), p. 320.

4 commments on “John Quincy Adams’ Report Upon Weights and Measures”

  • Bart says:

    Wonderful post, it goes to show that even mediocre presidents can do great things for the country.

  • Addison Jump says:

    Just shows how stupid we humans are. We could have fundamental uniform laws worldwide, a second language everyone could speak (with sensible way of writing it), a world-wide political system so we don’t have to spend $1,000,000,000,000 on arms every year. By the way, every country in the world uses the metric system, except two: the United States of America and some small nation in the depths of Africa, whose name escapes me. If only the shade of N could come back to impose order on this planet!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Humans are, for the most part, not rational creatures. I think Adams was onto something, though, when he wrote about the difficulty of changing traditional habits of measurement. Here in Canada, where we switched to the metric system in the 1970s (a process I well remember), we still see our groceries advertised in price per pound (though we pay per kilogram), set our ovens in degrees Fahrenheit, and measure our ingredients in cups, tablespoons and teaspoons. A fair number of us give our weight in pounds and our height in feet and inches, note how many miles per gallon our cars get on the highway (though we buy gas in litres and our roads are marked in kilometres), and talk about the number of acres someone farms, etc. In short, the practical — as opposed to official –system of weights and measures in Canada is (endearingly) inconsistent.

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Your father [is] more deeply immersed in business than ever and less capable of participating in any domestic enjoyments…his whole mind is so intent on weights and measures that you would suppose his very existence depended on this report.

Louisa Adams