Of Money and Measuring Thomas Jefferson’s Attempt to Rationalize America

Thomas Jefferson is known for many accomplishments: legal scholar, scientist, statesman, diplomat, and educator. But, he is also the individual who developed the United States’ monetary system and was almost the father of the metric system. The last two he devised in his spare time while he was assuming other taxing duties.

Jefferson, a child of the Enlightment, saw disorder as an anathema. The English system of measurement with its ounces, feet and bushels; which were not related mathematically, grated on his rational mind. He felt the same about the nonsensical pences and pounds monetary units which the English had bequeathed to the colonies.

Jefferson saw standard American monetary and measuring units as a unifying aspect for the new nation; a way of completely severing all ties to its English past. He believed that new systems would have political, social, economic and scientific implications which would have positive consequences for the fledgling nation.

To accomplish these consequences, Jefferson, ever the rational man, devised measuring and monetary systems based on units of ten. In his own mind, these simple, elegant solutions would be apparent to all. As he was to find out, they were not; it would take many years for his monetary plan to be adopted and we are still waiting for a decimal-based measuring system in the United States.

The first time that Jefferson dealt with the colonies’ disorderly monetary system was in 1776. (Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, 1948, p. 416). He drafted a report for Congress on the value of various monetary values in the states. This was vital since each state could issue its own specie, and it was common practice to also use foreign coinage. Along with this, prior to the war, each colony had instituted “Land Banks” which could also print its own currency. Standards and values were not equitable between the competing currencies. Later in the war, to add to the confusion, the British employed economic sabotage by flooding the Colonies with counterfeit Continentals. (“Following, Er, Finding the Money”, securingamerica.com. 2006). Nobody knew what any currency was worth. This brought about a situation where currency would be valued at one amount in a certain colony and a different amount in another. Jefferson’s investigations for Congress impressed on him the need for a common currency for all of America.

Congress turned its attention to the multitude of monies in the states, once again in 1782. Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance, was directed to devise a table of rates by which the various currencies could be exchanged at the national treasury. This plan could be grafted onto the existing hodgepodge of state and foreign currencies. Jefferson, then back in Congress, balked at the complicated plan. Morris had proposed a unit which was the largest common divisor of the different pennies of each state. This calculation was 1440th part of a dollar. Jefferson regarded this as impractical for carrying on commerce.

The price of a loaf of bread, 1/20 of a dollar, would be 72 units. A pound of butter, 1/5 of a dollar, 288 units. A horse of bullock, to wit, 115,200; and the public debt, suppose of eighty millions, would require twelve figures, to wit, 115,200,000,000 units. Such a system of money-arithmetic would be entirely unmanageable for the common purposes of society. (As cited in Jefferson Himself, Bernard Mayo, 1970, P.107).

A Common Currency

Jefferson’s objections were not only because of the awkwardness of the Morris plan. He wished to get rid of all state and foreign monies, not have a system which integrated them. He felt a common currency would bind the country together and aid in the support of the new national government.

Jefferson, while praising Morris’ plan as “worthy of sound judgment”, sent to him some notes on the plan which he just “threw together”. Knowing that no action would be taken on the Morris’ plan in that session of Congress, Jefferson, ever the politician, had his plan printed and distributed so his views would be known when Congress sat again. These “off the cuff” notes were published as Notes On The Establishment Of A Money Unit, And Of Coinage In The United States.

In Notes on Coinage Jefferson set down three principles for the new system.

  1. That it be of convenient size to be applied as a measure to the common money transactions of life.
  2. That its parts and multiples be in an easy proportion to each other, so as to facilitate money arithmetic.
  3. That the Unit and its parts, or divisions, be so nearly of the value of some known coins, as they may be of easy adoption for the people.

Jefferson believed that a coin based on the Spanish Dollar (what we know of as “pieces of eight”) would fit the bill. It was convenient in size and weight to be used in everyday commerce. This coin was easily divided by tens, a ratio that almost everyone could deal with and was known. And, it was a coin that was very familiar. A major portion of American business had been using the Spanish Dollar for transactions for many years. The subdivisions of the new dollar would also nearly coincide with other coins in circulation.

The tenth (dime) which he recommended was comparable with the Spanish bit, the double tenth was like the Spanish pistareen, and the hundredth would be nearly enough like existing coppers. (Jefferson The Virginian, Dumas Malone, 1948, p. 417).

Congress debated the Morris and Jefferson systems several years. In 1785 Jefferson presented a revised plan to aid in reconciling the two plans. In 1786 (some sources state 1785), ten years after Jefferson first took up the issue, Congress established a new monetary system. Jefferson’s three principles were accepted. This new, unifying coinage would have one, five, and ten dollar coins. Smaller denominations would be a half-penny, penny, ten cent, twenty cent, and fifty cent coins. This system was so simple and practical that over 200 years later it is practically unchanged.

The Geometrical Mile

Jefferson had long been contemplating rationalizing America’s weights and measurements, once again based on the decimal system. He attempted to plant the seed of this idea to members of the Congress through his various reports. (Jefferson wrote 31 state papers in six months.) In his paper on the new Northwest Territories, he advocated in its surveying “the ‘geometrical mile’; subdivided into 10 furlongs, 100 chains, and 1000 paces, on the decimal principle.” (As cited in Jefferson The Virginian, Dumas Malone, 1948, p. 416). Imbedded in a reply to Congress concerning his coinage proposal was a veiled attempt at getting his fellow lawmakers to consider altering the English system in use.

The divisions into dimes, cents, and mills is now so well understood, that it would be easy of introduction into the kindred branches of weights and measures. I use when I travel, an Odometer of Clark’s invention, which divides the mile into cents, and I find every one comprehends a distance readily, when stated to him in miles and cents; so he would in feet and cents, pounds and cents, etc. (The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson).

Jefferson was unable to champion the new measuring system to his fellow Congressmen after the 1785 session, because he had been appointed Ambassador to France. While in France he continued his explorations into a base ten measuring system. He discussed this idea with the leading French thinkers of the day, including Talleyrand. We know he shared his novel thoughts with the French and also received some new ones himself.

Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789 to assume the duties of Secretary of State in Washington’s initial cabinet. One of Washington’s first orders of business was to task Congress with the importance a uniform system of weights and measures. Washington, like Jefferson, believed that such a change would unify the nation.

Congress turned right around and gave the problem to Jefferson. As Secretary of State he was obligated to respond to a request for information from that body. (The Secretary of State, at that time, had numerous duties including the Patent Office and the Mint.) What Congress received is probably much more than they expected. Jefferson loved the science of the project and his report regaled the Congressmen with a learned study containing advanced mathematics and physics.

Jefferson conducted his research and wrote the report in one month. This was while carrying on the duties of Secretary of State. Also during this time, he experienced one of his prolonged headaches. These headaches would begin at sunrise and did not cease until sunset. Reflecting of this time and his work, he stated: “What had been ruminated in the day under a paroxysm of the most excruciating pain, was committed by candlelight and then the calculations were made.” (As cited in Jefferson and the Rights of Man, Dumas Malone, 1951, p. 276).

Jefferson based his measuring units on what he deemed to be universal and natural laws. He looked to the motion of the Earth around its axis. He knew this calculation could be subdivided into hours, minutes and seconds. He developed a pendulum so that its arc would take one second; later he would substitute a rod without a bob. The length of the rod became the base unit of measurement and all other weights and measures would derive from it. The “rod” would be divided into five equal parts called a foot.

Let the foot be divided into 10 inches; The inch into 10 lines; The line into ten points; Let 10 feet make a decad; 10 decads one rood; 10 roods a furlong; 10 furlongs a mile. (As cited in Jefferson Himself, Bernard Mayo, 1970, p. 178).

Jefferson sent the report to Congress asking for a gradual transition for the new system, but he warned that waiting too long would increase the difficulty of its acceptance by the general population. He was very proud of the report and had copies made. He sent these throughout the states and to Europe, including scientists in France.

Action of the report was stalled time and again in Congress. This may not have been because of the merits of the plan, but a result of the political rancor which emerged during Washington’s first administration. The closest it ever came to success was in the spring of 1792 when the Senate committee approved the plan. The next administration, Adams, wouldn’t touch any Jeffersonian proposal. And, by the time Jefferson became President, the French had already adopted the metric system.

On his tombstone Jefferson listed what he felt were his greatest accomplishments: the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and the University of Virginia. Dumas Malone, Jefferson biographer, felt he might have added a fourth: Father of the Metric System. “Thus Jefferson lost a title to fame which he might have cherished more than any of the political honors he gained or offices he held.” (Jefferson and the Rights of Man, Dumas Malone, 1952, p. 281).