George Washington Papers

To George Washington from George Skene Keith, 19 November 1792

From George Skene Keith

Keith-hall by Aberdeen [Scotland] 19th Novr 1792


I had the Honour of your Excellencys Letter of the 22d of June, which I shall carefully preserve for the sake of the subscription. I received at the same time your Secretary’s Letter of the 7th of May; both Letters bearing the Edinburgh Post mark of the 12th of September.1

The best return I can make for the distinguishing honour of a Letter from your own Hand is [t]o send you some information on the Subject of Weights and Measures, an Uniformity of which as you justly observe, would be attended with the most beneficial effects to Commerce.

There are two things, either of which may be done by the Legislators of America—They may either establish such a standard as the nations of Europe will probably adopt; or they may concert with the different Courts of Europe, about establishing a connexion between some of the principal weights and measures presently in use, and a Standard taken from nature. I beg leave to send you two papers, which I have compressed into as little Room as possible—One of them contains some Observations on the Report of the Committee of Senate of the United States on this subject; and the other has sketched out the Outlines of a proposed application from the United States to the different Courts of Europe about establishing an Uniformity of Weights & Measures. They have cost me some labour in drawing up and compressing them⟨.⟩ And I have no view in sending them but to be useful to mankind.2

Therefore I make no Apology to your Excellency for the form in which they are drawn up, excepting this that they would have been much longer in describing, and going round about every little circumstance, than by exhibiting them in the form a corrected report of the Committee of your Senate, and of an application from the States of America to the Courts of Europe.

To one of your elevated Mind Compl⟨i⟩ments are empty and Apologies unnecessary—I therefore request your Excellencys attention to the two first and the last pages of the Observations on the Report of the Committee of Senate, and to the first and last pages of the Outlines of the proposed application to the Courts of Europe—The mathematical information in other parts of these papers you can submit to those who have particularly studied the Subject.

I have only to request your forgiveness for the Liberty I take in writing your Excellency, and for sending my papers to be forwarded by your Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of London, that they may not be so long, as my last communication was in reaching America.3

May God Almighty prolong your useful and valuable Life to a very remote period, for the good of those States, among whom your important services, your abilities and your virtues, give you a greater and a better influence, than may ever fall to the Lot of any of your Successers.

I beg offer of my best acknowledgements for your goodness in sending my Letter to my Aunt Mrs [Rachel] Barclay. I have the honour to be with the highest Esteem and Veneration for your Character, independent of the Respect due to your Rank Sir Your Excellencys most Obedient and most Humble Servant

Geo: Skene Keith

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. The docket indicates that the letter was “Recd Feby 14th 1793.”

1For background on the Washington administration’s interest in establishing a uniform system of weights and measures and Keith’s earlier correspondence with GW and Thomas Jefferson on the subject and for Tobias Lear’s letter to Keith of 7 May 1792, see Keith to GW, 1 July 1791, and source note and notes 1 and 2. See also Jefferson to GW, 14 June 1792, n.2, and GW to Keith, 22 June 1792.

2Keith enclosed two papers, both dated 19 Nov: “Observations on the Report of the Committee of the Senate of the United States of America, on the Subject of Weights and Measures” and “Outlines of a proposed application from the United States of America to the Courts of the different trading nations of Europe, in regard to establishing an Uniformity of Weights, Measures and Coins.”

In the first two pages of his “Observations,” Keith wrote: “If the American States propose only to establish a national standard of Weights and Measures, and have no view to this Standards being adopted by any nation of Europe, what the Committee of Senate have proposed, may, with some alterations, to be afterwards mentioned, sufficiently answer the purpose. Only it will add one

more to the too great number of national standards, which are already established in different countries.

“But, (as the worthy President of the United States observes in a Letter, with which he honoured the Author of these remarks) ‘if any Uniformity of Weights and Measures could be established upon a proper foundation through the several nations of Europe, and in the United States of America, its advantages would be great indeed.[’] It is to be hoped that the American States will not lose sight of this Uniformity.

“If the Legislators of America wish to establish a Standard of Weights and Measures, which the nations of Europe will probably be inclined to adopt, then that which is proposed by the Committee of Senate must be laid aside, or it must be divided in a different manner from what is mentioned in the Report.

“The Length of the Standard Rod, proposed to be established in America, is already known probably within one four thousandth part of the truth. That length is 58.65 English inches. One fifth part of this length is 11.73 inches, the proposed unit of measure of length, in the United States being nearly 1/43 part less than the English, and 1/12 part less than the Paris foot. It is obvious by looking at the figures, and comparing them with the foot measures of Europe, that the proposed Unit or Foot does not correspond with any European measure [Keith’s footnote placed here reads: “Perhaps the reason of adopting of this foot measure, was that it corresponded nearly with, the English Foot and Avoirdupois ounce. But in fact it does not correspond with either of these”], excepting the Swedish national foot and the provincial foot of Strasbourg, which nearly correspond with this Standard.

“As a Standard of weight the proposed foot contains very nearly 934 Avoirdupois Ounces of Rain water, of a moderate temperature, in a cube of its dimensions. The pound weight derived from this would consequently be 9⅓ Ounces Avoirdupois, or nearly 4086 English Troy grains. There is not a nation in Europe which has so small a Pound as this, which is about one half of the provincial Pound of Rouen in Normandy. Therefore no European nation would probably adopt this Standard.

“It might farther be mentioned that the Superficial and Solid measure proposed by the Committee of Senate, do not correspond with any of those used by the different nations of Europe. But if the weights and lineal measures had corresponded this would have been of less importance. At the same time it ought not to be altogether overlooked, that the Standards proposed by the Committee of Senate do not correspond, with the Superficial and Solid measures, any more than with the Weights and Lineal Measures which are generally used in Europe.

“Nor should it pass unnoticed, that though the Coins [Keith’s footnote here reads: “The American States ought to have fixed upon their weights and measures, before they fixed upon their Coins—The Eagle then should have been an Ounce of Gold, or the dollar an oz. of silver”] of the United States do correspond pretty nearly with the proposed weights and measures, none of these correspond with the majority, or indeed with any considerable number of the various Coins of the different trading nations of Europe.

“On these accounts the proposed Standard foot, and the other weights and measures proposed by the Committee of Senate, should be set aside by the Legislators of America, if they wish to establish weights and measures, which Europe would probably adopt.

“At the same time the proposed Standard Rod of Iron, which vibrates seconds of mean time in a moderate temperature and middle latitude, may still be retained. Only the Unit of all measures of length must be two thirds instead of one fifth part of the length of this Rod.

“The true length of pendulum in a cylindrical rod, is not the whole length of that Rod, but the length from the point of Suspension to what Philosophers call the center of oscillation in that Rod: And were it not for the resistance of the Air, and the weight and thickness of the rod (which occasion a small alteration in its measure) the length of the pendulum would be exactly two thirds of the length of the rod.

“Instead therefore of the 4th Article of the Report of the Committee of Senate, let it be proposed that the standard Rod shall be divided into three parts, two of which parts, or two thirds of the whole length of the rod, to be called a Standard Yard, shall be the Unit of measures of length for the United States, and shall be decimally divided into palms or handbreadths, digits, and lines.

“By adopting this alteration the Standard of Weights, Measures and Coins, adopted by the American States, would probably be imitated by the nations of Europe.

“As a Standard of length it corresponds almost exactly with the Vara of Madrid, and the Half-canna of Rome, Avignon, Provence and Mont Pelier, which measure is the standard used in all the Southern provinces of France, & different parts of Spain and Italy.”

On the last page of his “Observations,” Keith concluded: “The Legislators of America have Much less Mind, than the writer of this paper believes them to possess, if they need any Apology for the form, in which a Man who once thought of Spending his Life in America, conveys instruction, which he thinks may be useful to mankind.

“If any man of Science takes offence at this Author, for offering corrections on his plan which the Committee of Senate have adopted; and if he wish, from a false pride, to retain any article which is here shewn to be improper, let him stand on the banks of the Potowmac, and beholding the Alligany mountains on the one side, and the Atlantlic Ocean on the other; let him learn to speak and act with liberality, when he approaches the most sublime object and elevated Mind in America—George Washington!

“P.S. The Author of these Observations, having bestowed more labour on the subject of Weights and Measures, than perhaps any man existing has done, shall be happy to receive instruction, and is ready to give all the information he can, to any Senator, Representative, Philosopher, Merchant or Citizen of the United States, on this important subject” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

On the first page of his “Outlines,” Keith observed: “The United States of America have it in contemplation to establish within their own territories a Standard of Weights, Measures and Coins, which shall be taken from Nature, and may be rectified by an Observation taken from nature at any distance of time. But they wish to establish such a Standard as other nations will probably adopt; and even to concert with the different courts of Europe about establishing an Uniformity of Weights, Measures and Coins, which would be attended with many and great advantages to Commerce.

“With this view they wish to connect some of the principal weights, measures and coins, presently in use among trading nations, with a Standard taken from nature. For it fortunately happens that though the different Standards of Europe are arbitrary, yet many of them do very nearly correspond with philosophical Standards: And it is certainly better to retain some of the weights, measures and Coins, which are in present use, than to establish such as are not used by any nation of the earth.

“Farther, By adopting the Standards used by other nations, instead of establishing one of their own, the United States of America hope to induce the different Courts of Europe, to part at least with some of their national Standards, for the purpose of obtaining an Uniformity of Weights, Measures and Coins.

“The most unexceptionable Standards, in the opinion of philosophers, are those which are taken from the circumference of the earth, or from some part of that circumference, which can be accurately measured: or those which are taken from the length of a pendulum, or from the length of a cylindrical rod, which makes a certain number of vibrations in a solar or sidereal day, and under a certain parallel of latitude.

“The principal weights, measures and coins of Europe are those which are established in Great Britain, France, Spain and the Seven United Provinces—They are here called the principal ones, because they are most generally used, & best known even where they are not established.”

On the last page of his “Outlines,” Keith concluded: “When Rome carried her conquests over the earth, the Roman weights and measures were established, wherever the Roman arms prevailed—When Charlemagne had extended his Sceptre over a great part of Europe, he established one weight through all his dominions. And this was the old weight of Rome, with this difference, that the Roman Pound contained 12, and that of Charlemagne 16 Ounces. It is this Pound which is in by far the most general use in the trading world. And the Tun weight or 2000 of these Pounds, by a most fortunate accident corresponds very nearly with a Standard taken from nature in the 7th or last mentioned one.

“The United States of America are ready however to adopt any one of the above Standards, or any Standard whatever which shall be taken from nature by a new experiment, and which shall be agreeable to the majority of trading nations.

“As not only the Weights and Measures, but also the Coins of Europe are various it would be of consequence that money were coined in Ounces, drams and scruples of gold and silver, and that the value of the Coin in the national denominations of different countries were marked on one side of the coin, and the weight & fineness on the other side—By this means the various coins of different nations, by whatever name they were called in the country in which they were coined, would have a general value, known to all merchants, as the language of China and Japan though differently spoken, is written in the same character, and as the 9 Arabic figures and cypher, now used in Arithmetic, though differently pronounced in speaking the different languages, have the same value over all the world.

“If the different trading nations would only agree in fixing on a Standard for their foreign trade, and oblige all merchants to put up goods in the standard weights & measures, and charge their price in ounces of gold or Silver, it is highly probable that these would soon become universal: at any rate great advantage would arise to the commercial intercourse of mankind that they bought and sold at a known price, a known quantity of goods in every part of the world.

“The Author of the above Outlines respectfully hopes, and expects from the liberality of mind possessed by that great and good man who presides over the United States of America, that the form in which [it] appears will not give any offence, if the matter contained in it be useful to the Legislators of America” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). The Senate report on weights and measures was read in the Senate on 5 April 1792 (see Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 2d Cong., 1st sess., 117–18).

3Thomas Pinckney was the U.S. minister to Great Britain.

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