State Standards: Weights, Measures, and Market Regulation in the Early American Republic

Stephen Mihm

The United States Constitution explicitly gave Congress the power to “fix the standard of weights and measures.”  But Congress, while possessor of this prerogative, declined to act forcefully in the opening decades of the nation’s existence.  As a consequence, weights and measures varied widely from state to state.  But the uncertainty plaguing weights and measures went much deeper, extending all the way down to smaller units of government: counties, townships, and municipalities. A bushel in one store did not equal  a bushel two blocks away, despite local laws prescribing that weights and measures used by retailers be sealed and standardized.

In recent years it has become fashionable to assail the “myth of statelessness”: the notion, promulgated by an earlier generation of historians that the American state was especially “weak” in this formative era.  The endless debates over weights and measures in the nation’s states, counties, cities, and towns, points toward a more complicated story that reveals the limits as much as the latitude of state power at this time.   The American state could legislate, dictate, cajole, and threaten.  But compared to more familiar forms of state power, from keeping the peace to collecting taxes, imposing standard weights and measures proved an extraordinarily vexing, perplexing challenge at this time. “Custom,” mused one legislator as he contemplated resistance to new weights and measures, “has a more controlling influence than law.”