John Quincy Adams and The Metric System

By The Metric Maven

Get Yourself Some Coffee Edition — This is long — You have been warned.

When I watched the HBO series John Adams, I was most interested in the portrayal of his son, John Quincy. He appeared to be the reluctant, competent son who was a genius in diplomacy. When one reads the Wikipedia entry on John Quincy Adams (JQA), it indicates that George Washington was so taken with his abilities that he did his best to keep him in government. JQA is also the person to whom many metric advocates look for early political affirmation of the metric system, which was yet again ignored by the US Government afterward. The report itself is an incredible tome. When JQA wrote it, the metric system had been around formally for about 25 years. The quotation one generally sees reproduced from this report, over and over and over, is found in this government document from 1969 about the history of the metric system. It implies that JQA was a very, very serious scholar of weights and measures:

click to enlarge

We will delve into the actual body of JQA’s tome in this essay to reveal what he actually said. At the beginning of his work Quincy Adams describes the two systems. The metric system he sees as governed by:

By an uniformity of  identity, is meant a system founded on the principle of applying only one unit of weights to all weighable articles, and one unit of measures of capacity to all substances, thus measured, liquid or dry.

and the existing situation:

By an uniformity of  proportion, is understood a system admitting more than one unit of weights, and more than one of measures of capacity; but in which all the weights and measures of capacity are in a uniform proportion with one another.

and:

Our present existing weights and measures are, or originally were, founded upon the uniformity of proportion. The new French metrology is founded upon the uniformity of identity.

JQA then starts to discuss decimal arithmetic. He states: “The elementary principle of decimal arithmetic is then supplied by nature to man within himself in the number of his fingers.” So it would appear that John Quincy sees decimal arithmetic as a positive development, a natural one. After all we have 10 fingers. Then just as quickly he admonishes it: “But while decimal arithmetic thus, for the purposes of computation, shoots spontaneously from the nature of man and of things, it is not equally adapted to the numeration, the multiplication, or the division, of material substances, either in his own person, or in external nature.” One starts to get a very schizophrenic feeling when reading the report. Adams states:

The power of the legislator is limited over the will and actions of his subjects. His conflict with them is desperate, when he counteracts their settled habits, their established usages; their domestic and individual economy, their ignorance, their prejudices, and their wants: all which is unavoidable in the attempt radically to change, or to originate, a totally new system of weights and measures.

Considering the US Constitution gives the government the power to determine the weights and measures, the limit on the legislator is actually a function of his leadership, which in this case JQA argues for timidity in the extreme which is a form of self-limitation. Later JQA will try to rationalize this position.

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848)

JQA then launches into a history of the almost unlimited number of measurement values used in the ancient world. He then interjects: “…and it has since been noticed, that the power of the legislator is restricted to the inhabitants of his own dominions.”  and after mentioning how nice having a single system would be he states: “But this uniformity cannot he obtained by legislation. It must be imposed by conquest, or adopted by consent.” Adams is now contradicting the constitutional mandate that his father and others placed into the constitution. One must wonder if JQA was against the very idea of uniform measures when he makes this statement:  “is it not worth their while to inquire, whether an imperceptible improvement in the uniformity of things would not be dearly purchased by the loss of millions in the uniformity of persons ?” Adams then indicates that legislation just doesn’t work and offers up this statement:

In England, from the earliest records of parliamentary history, the statute books are filled with ineffectual attempts of the legislature to establish uniformity.

JQA then launches into a defense of the use of barleycorns for measurement. I guess I can be thankful that agricultural scientists have not been tasked to develop better barleycorn strains specifically to act as measurement standards.

But he seems to argue that much of the English legislation was not actually meant to establish uniform measures. He throws in this disparaging statement along the way: “The litre of the French system is a weight for nothing but distilled water, at a given temperature.” JQA demonstrates technical ignorance of the important concept of specific gravity, which relies on the mass of water, and is used to this day. This is followed by page after page of interrelationships between an almost uncountable number of measures used over the ages. He relates how they changed because of wars and political strife. The mad interrelationships, birth and death of measures is described for page after slumber inducing page. Then he offers an intermission to state: “Such was originally the system of English weights and measures, and such is it now in its ruins.” JQA then launches an attack aimed at those who seek uniformity in measure:

No further change in this portion of English legislation has yet been made. But the philosophers and legislators of Britain have never ceased to be occupied upon weights and measures, nor to be stimulated by the passion for uniformity. In speculating upon the theory, and in making experiments upon the existing standards of their weights and measures, they seem to have considered the principle of uniformity as exclusively applicable to identity, and to have overlooked or disregarded the uniformity of proportion. They found a great variety of standards differing from each other: and instead of searching for the causes of these varieties in the errors and mutability of the law, they ascribed them to the want of an immutable standard from nature. They felt the convenience and the facility of decimal arithmetic for calculation; and they thought it susceptible of equal application to the divisions and multiplications of time, space and matter. They despised the primitive standards assumed from the stature and proportions of the human body. They rejected the secondary standards, taken from the productions of nature most essential to the subsistence of man ; the articles for ascertaining the quantities of which, weights and measures were first found necessary. They tasked their ingenuity and their learning to find, in matter or in motion, same  immutable standard of linear measure, which might
be assumed as the single universal standard from which all measures and all weights might be derived. In the review of the proceedings in France relative to this subject, we shall trace the progress and note the results hitherto of these opinions, which have there been embodied into a great and beautiful system. In England they have been indulged with more caution, and more regard to the preservation of existing things. (page 45-46)

John Quincy launches into another apparently suspicious flood of words aimed at uniformity  as an end unto itself. He boldly appears to predict that the metric system as we know it today will never happen because: “Any change whatever in the system of the one [country], which would not be adopted by the other, would destroy all this existing uniformity.” (page 47) All of the countries of the world, with the exception of the one for whom JQA acted as a politician, have today embraced one uniform system—the metric system. In an almost backhanded and dismissive manner he then states:

If these ideas should be deemed too cold and cheerless for the spirit of theoretical improvement; if Congress should deem their powers competent, and their duties imperative, to establish uniformity as respects weights and measures in its most universal and comprehensive sense; another system is already made to their hands. 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 of metrology, in all its important parts. Were it even possible to construct another system, on different principles, but embracing in equal degree all the great elements of uniformity, it would still be a system of diversity with regard to France, and all the followers of her system. And as she could not be expected to abandon that, which she has established at so much expense, and with so much difficulty, for another, possessing, if equal, not greater advantages, there would still be two rival systems, with more desperate chances for the triumph of uniformity by the recurrence to the same standard of all mankind.

Any subtlety about the origin of the metric system, or enthusiasm for it, is not offered by John Quincy when he relates his view that:

The system of modern France originated with her Revolution. It is one of those attempts to improve the condition of human kind, which, should it even be destined ultimately to fail, would, in its failure, deserve little less admiration than in its success. It is founded upon the following principles:

1. That all weights and measures should be reduced to one uniform standard of linear measure.

2. That this standard should be an aliquot part of the circumference of the globe.

3. That the unit of linear measure, applied to matter, in its three modes of extension, length, breadth, and thickness, should be the standard of all measures of length, surface, and solidity.

4. That the cubic contents of the linear measure, in distilled water, at the temperature of its greatest contraction, should furnish at once the standard weight and measure of capacity.

5. That for every thing susceptible of being measured or weighed, there should be only one measure of length, one weight, one measure of contents, with their multiples and subdivisions exclusively in decimal proportions.

6. That the principle of decimal division, and a proportion to the linear standard, should be annexed to the coins of gold, silver, and copper, to the moneys of account, to the division of time, to the barometer and thermometer, to the plummet and log lines of the sea, to the geography of the earth and the astronomy of the skies; and, finally, to every thing in human existence susceptible of comparative estimation by weight or measure.

7. That the whole system should be equally suitable to the use of all mankind.

8. That every weight and every measure should be designated by an appropriate, significant, characteristic name, applied exclusively to itself.

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, and has been in part achieved.

Once again I get the feeling that I’m reading the description of a tennis ball bouncing from side to side of a tennis court. And if mankind has the ability to improve himself:

“…the metre will surround the globe in use as well as in multiplied extension; and one language of weights and measures will be spoken from the equator to the poles.

The establishment of this system of metrology forms an era, not only in the history of weights and measures, but in that of human science. Every step of its progress is interesting…..”

So JQA likes the metric system? He then relates that the French (before the revolution) attempted to have their king write to the British king, and see if they could not work out a method for using the seconds pendulum as a length standard. The length later chosen was the length of an arc of a meridian and JQA was not pleased. I fully understand this, and believe the choice of a meridian created a schism. JQA makes a quite reasonable objection to this choice:

She had already communicated by her own inspiration to the mind of Newton, that the earth was not a perfect sphere, but an oblate spheroid, flattened at the poles : and she had authenticated this discovery by the result of previous admeasurements of degrees of the meridian in different parts of the two hemispheres.

John Quincy Adams pounds out the details of the practical problems associated with using the earth as a “metrology standard.” To make matters worse he points out “The admeasurement [actual act of measurement] of the meridian was commenced at the very moment of the fanatical paroxysm of the French revolution.” The men tasked with the measurement ran into problems of epic proportions because of this. For those who might be interested, their problems are exhaustively related in the book The Measure of All Things by Ken Alder. JQA relates the use of metric prefixes and finds: “The theory of this nomenclature is perfectly simple and beautiful.” But then claims the French people have rejected their use, and relates this to the rejection of decimal currency in the US. He further launches into the “too many syllables” argument against metric notation, which will be echoed into at least the late 20th century.

John Quincy’s suspicion, that because of politics, war, and the inability of countries to come to a uniform weights and measures consensus appears to have been justified, when he relates how after the revolution a set of new names were given to sets of metric quantities.

JQA suspects that cities which are far away from Paris have probably retained their customary measures, or will revert. But strangely he then seems to argue that one should not get too down about the possibility of measurement uniformity in the future. I recalled upon my first reading of JQA’s report that it felt much like I would imagine the digestion of a pan-galactic gargle blaster might. Upon my second reading—I’m sure. He then believes he can identify the problem:

The French metrology, in the ardent and exclusive search for an universal standard from nature, seems to have viewed the subject too much with reference to the nature of things, and not enough to the nature of man.

JQA then returns to a sermon about how any metrology system must relate to the proportions of the parts of a human body (an average man I suspect?–not woman?–or child?–in what geographical location?). (BTW my index finger is very close to 100 mm, as is the width of my palm, and my hand span is close to 200 mm) He also revisits his attack on decimal arithmetic. Quincy Adams praises fractions and binary divisions and points out that even those who champion decimal arithmetic are now contemplating duodecimal (12) instead. This sounds like a stealth appeal to the foot and its division into inches. JQA sees the two systems thus:

The standard of nature of the English system is the length of the human foot, divided by the barley corn. That of the French system is an aliquot part of the circumference of the earth decimally divided.

Quincy Adams then launches into a long set of interlaced paragraphs which alternate between his reflections upon “The French System” and “The English System.” JQA then attacks the notion of using a seconds pendulum, argues that for voyages the length of a meridian it is great, but again returns to the complaint that metric is not suited for human needs. He asserts:

The foot of Hercules, the arm of Henry the First, or the barley-corn, are as sufficient for the purpose as the pendulum, or the quadrant of the meridian.

And then after arguing for “the foot of Hercules” as a measurement standard, which would be a standard based on the dimension a mythological person, he argues that making metrology too “sciency”  makes it less accessible to ordinary people:

It is a great and important defect of the systems which assume the meridian or the pendulum for their natural standard, that they never can be recurred to without scientific operations.

This is one great advantage which a natural standard, taken from the dimensions and proportions of the human body, has over all others.

Then I begin to hear imaginary violins in my head as I read:

Should the metre be substituted as the standard of our weights and measures, instead of the foot and inch, the natural standard which every man carries with him in his own person would betaken away; and the inconvenience of the want of it would be so sensibly felt, that it would be as soon as possible adapted to the new measures : every man would find the proportions in his own body corresponding to the metre, decimetre, and centimetre, and habituate himself to them as well as he could. If this conjecture be correct, is it not a reason for adhering to that system which was founded upon those proportions, rather than resort to another, which, after all, will bring us back to the standard of nature in ourselves.

So, all we will do if the metric system is implemented is to revert to body parts anyway, so just forget bothering with it. He then argues that the values of metric are just as arbitrary as those used currently. Quincy Adams believes the metric system is nice, but it’s not perfect, so let’s keep our distance. After all: “Of all the nations of European origin, ours is that which least requires any change in the system of their weights and measures.” Really!? JQA continues to argue that the current measures are “natural” and metric is not.

As I read this incredibly long, repetitive and circular document, it struck me that what is being argued in its pages may not be about measurement at all, but about man’s place in the universe. It’s like a proxy war about whether man is at the center of the universe and the planets and sun revolve around the earth, versus an inanimate universe where man is not at the center, and the earth orbits the sun. The current English measures are “man centered” he argues, and the metric system is impersonal and based on science (in his view science is not nature–or natural of course, that could undermine his argument).

Away he goes again. JQA relates ad nausium dozens of measurements and their relationships in different states of the union. Page after page is filled with antique relationships about which no one would care if the metric system were substituted for the current mess. John Quincy asserts that if the metric system were introduced, it would only end up augmenting the current farrago of weights and measures. The old ones would remain as they could not be eschewed. Introducing metric would only make matters worse.  He uses this as an argument to explain why the metric system can never achieve uniformity. It is the same argument that will be used 85 years later by Frederick A. Halsey against metric in the metric hearings of the early 1900s.

Finally after 117 pages, JQA points out that the reason he has begun this endless set of prose is because of a provision in the constitution:

in reference to that part of the resolutions of both Houses, which requires the opinion of the Secretary of State with regard to the measures which it may be proper for Congress to adopt in relation to weights and measures, it may be proper to state the extent of what can be done by Congress. Their authority to act is comprised in one line of the constitution, being the fifth paragraph of the eighth section and first article; in the following words: to fix the standard of weights and measures.”

Quincy Adams then proceeds to argue that: “To fix the standard, appears to be an operation entirely distinct from changing the denominations and proportions already existing, and established by the laws, or immemorial usage.”

I now recall why I found reading this document to be torturous. So he claims fixing the weights and measures is not deciding or legislating the weights and measures.  I hope you readers appreciate my wading through this malarial swamp of prose—that is if you have made it this far without giving up, or having fallen asleep.

JQW then proceeds to argue that legislation has never brought uniform measurement before, so forget even bothering to try. It’s a fools errand. How many times has he hit this chestnut over the last 188 pages?—don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. Not long after this assertion he offers a set of options:

1. To adopt, in all its essential parts, the new French system of weights and measures, founded upon the uniformity of identity.

2. To restore and perfect the old English system of weights, measures, moneys, and silver coins, founded upon the uniformity of proportion. [note that JQA appears to be arguing that the implementation of decimal currency by the US in 1786 should be repealed. Apparently he wanted to return to the almost endless and irrational set of English coins?]

3. To devise and establish a system, in which the uniformities of identity and of proportion shall be combined together, by adaptations of parts of each system to the principles of the other.

4. To adhere, without any innovation whatever, to our existing weights and measures, merely fixing the standard. (page 119)

Ok, spoiler alert!  For those of you who didn’t know—we chose number four. So we have one mystery left, which option did John Quincy Adams endorse? Well, this probably nails it:

In the mean time, should Congress deem it expedient to take immediate steps for accomplishing a more perfect uniformity of weights and measures within the United States, it is proposed that they should assume as their principle, that no innovation upon the existing weights and measures should be attempted.

Oh, if you’re confused, it says: “don’t do anything.” But if you do “here are some non-metric suggestions, and discussion of possible standards—for our non-system.”  So how is it that many pro-metric persons think JQA was pro-metric?  Perhaps they read the last page of the document, and didn’t realize that he had previously argued against any change, recommended none, and if there was to be change, it should be to further the “development” of the current set of measures. Here is what the last page states:

“France first surveyed the subject of weights and measures in all its extent and all its compass. France first beheld it as involving the interests, the comforts, and the morals, of all nations and of all after ages. In forming her system, she acted as the representative of the whole human race, present and to come. She has established it by law within her own territories; and she has offered it as a benefaction to the acceptance of all other nations. That it is worthy of their acceptance, is believed to be beyond a question. But opinion is the queen of the world; and the final prevalence of this system beyond the boundaries of France’s power must await the time when the example of its benefits, long and practically enjoyed, shall acquire that ascendency over the opinions of other nations which gives motion to the springs and direction to the wheels of power.

Respectfully submitted.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS.
Department of State, February 22, 1821.

This is Mayor Maynot, from a short-lived animated series based on the movie Beetlejuice. Hizzoner tried to be all things to all his constituents: he was notorious for speeches in which every sentence contradicted the preceding sentence.

This could be read as an endorsement or even praise of the metric system by a person who is pro-metric. But it can also be read another way. Adams may well be accusing the French of cultural hubris with his statement: “she acted as the representative of the whole human race, present and to come.” In other words JQA is complaining that they appointed themselves arbiters of world measurement, without consulting  the rest of the world. Who do they think they are! How could this system possibly be legitimate? JQA also stresses that it took laws to establish the use of the metric system in France. This statement is used to imply there was no free choice by the French people to “voluntarily” use the metric system, and therefore it is used only under duress by these oppressed persons. Adams then argues that the metric system’s actual merits, as decided by the rest of the world, will determine whether it is adopted or not. This appears to be an early form of a technical Darwinism argument against metric.  The preceding statement by JQA: “That it [the metric system] is worthy of their [The French] [emphasis mine] acceptance, is believed to be beyond a question” may well imply that it is worthy for the French, but not a worthy system for Anglo-Saxons. This is what I suspect was his actual meaning.

In order to make some sense of this meandering, wandering and schizophrenic prose, one probably should look at the time in which Quincy Adams lived and his personal back ground. JQA was an envoy to France from 1778-1779. He became fluent in French and was well acquaintedwith other European languages. He had broad experience with the Europe of the time. John Quincy Adams supported George Washington’s decision for the US to have no involvement in the hostilities taking place in France during the revolution. Adams made it clear that he felt the US should stay out of European affairs. In affairs of the heart JQA decided that marriage to a British woman was a useful entanglement. From what little I know about Quincy Adams, it appears that as a personality he was “all business” and not much to have around socially. His photograph makes him look like Ebeneezer Scrooge’s grouchy brother.  In 1821 only four countries had adopted the metric system. These were France, Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands. To JQA the metric system would hardly seem universal. He stated in his report:

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,….”

Worse yet the metric system was associated with political upheaval in France, from which John Quincy Adams had decided the US should distance itself. He also argued against foreign entanglement, so that he would argue to either change nothing or improve what we have makes sense. As his entire career was as a diplomat, it is not surprising that he would create a document that anyone who casually read only parts of it, could readily see as pro-metric or pro-English depending on their point of view. I have no idea why some authors have called this a celebrated document. It is almost a prose Rorschach test. Right after he recommends no change he then turns around and seems to praise France’s effort at a metric system. When the prose is read carefully, it appears it may well be sarcasm. The Report on Measures appears to have been a document designed for some type of diplomatic consumption, and should not be celebrated, it should be seen for what it was, a 268 page empty suit of a document, written by a person with little technical background.

I have found one person who took issue with this report and wrote a critique of it. The person was Frederick A.P. Barnard (1809-1889) who is discussed in an earlier essay. He had this to say about John Quincy’s attraction to British Measures:

The Metric System of Weights and Measures, Fredrick A.P. Barnard, American Metric Bureau 1879 pg 82

Barnard further stated:

…I esteem [JQA’s Report on Measures] to have been a serious public misfortune. It effectually extinguished all hope of metrological reform in the United States for half a century. (pg 112)

He also points out that John Quincy Adams continued to discourage any legislation over the remainder of his long career. I agree with Barnard’s assessment.

I apologize for this long drawn-out blog to nowhere, which only serves to tell you that John Quincy Adams’ Report on Measures was essentially anti-metric (as near as I can tell) and simply appears to have existed so congress could feel good about doing nothing.  Its effect was to squelch any discussion of US metric implementation for at least another 50 years after its publication. I can only promise you I will never write a blog about this report again—if I can help it.

7 thoughts on “John Quincy Adams and The Metric System

  1. The analysis of this paper is great. J Q Adams seems to have written the first paper on how to stall and not make a committed decision for future congresses.

  2. How sad that the US has such a long tradition of politicians unwilling to take a stance on this issue.

    The rest of the world will continue to snicker behind our backs.

    What is it going to take for the US to see the error in their ways? Maybe when our students are no longer rank in the top 5 nations in Math and Science.

    Wait that has already happened……

  3. But if people don’t really want change, how can politicians – the dark side of a non-existent society – desire it? They cannot be better than those who elect them, sadly…

    • … And, for example, the formidable and super-fast metrication in Australia in the ’70s was probably possible only because the times (people *and* government) were projected towards the future – which sadly doesn’t seem to be the case, today.

      A worldwide federal society could perhaps finally change the situation, hopefully in the near future, forcing the US to be just a part of the world and thus metricate – but who knows when…

    • Technically, the US is a republic, not a democracy. The population job is to elect representatives who job is not to cater to every illogical whim, but to put into motion ideas and concepts that are in the best interest of the country in the long term.

      What you have today in the US is exactly the opposite and the very reason the US is in decline and no longer considered by many around the world to be the leader in the west.

      • … And certainly not only in the US: people and politics today are traveling on different, non-communicating and diverging tracks, all over the world (even in the most “democratic” countries; in reality, sadly, democracy doesn’t exist anywhere, at least in the form of direct democracy).

        But that’s also because people don’t seem to have much to say about their daily lives and society in general, forced as many of them are to “compete” one against the other to survive (instead of living).

        So, while still being only a republic and not a democracy is certainly a historical failure for a nation, this is however not only the politicians’ fault.

        For example, the metric system has been taught for decades, now, also in the UK and US: so, why don’t people WANT to be metric? Why don’t they have this IDEAL? Probably also because everything is managed by techno-/bureaucrats, with little contact with reality; and also perhaps because the SI doesn’t seem to be so overly compelling, as it isn’t used at its full potential (e.g., mega- and gigameters aren’t used in everyday life, while “customary” use still prevails, i.e., only kilometers).

        Why don’t people care, thus? Maybe also because there isn’t any passion for progress and future, anymore?

        in other words, an only economical-financial globalization – instead of a globalization of shared knowledge, future and ideas – is a really dull world to live in, from and ethical and idealistic point of view: nothing makes people want a better world, if there aren’t some powerful new perspectives…

        • BTW, an interesting and also hopefully rather well-known work of art of the ’70s:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powers_of_Ten

          … made in the USA: it could have been a manifest of and for metrication!

          And how much farther in the future you – and the world – could have been, also in “metrication++”, if such a “popular science and art” spirit had been maintained; instead of the “economy almost as a religion” retrogradism of the subsequent decades, at least from this point of view…

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