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The Enumerated Powers Series: Weights and Measures

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Quick review. The enumerated powers of government are the powers given to Congress by the Constitution about which Congress is allowed to make law. All other powers are left to the states and local governments. I’ve been working through the list of enumerated powers, slowly but methodically, breaking down the different powers, their historical contexts and their evolution over time.

Today’s enumerated power is more straight forward than most.

The framers decided to give Congress the power to make law establishing a uniform standard of weights and measures–or more specifically, a uniform standard to be ascribed to the quantity, capacity, volume, or dimensions of anything.

They did this because, while states could also regulate their own weights and measures, the framers knew the country needed a uniform standard to promote the success of science, industry and commerce. However, they did not include this power in the Constitution to solve a messy situation amongst the states. There was an already rather uniform system of weights and measures shared across the country. Thus, the addition of this enumerated power was more out of the motivation to equip the federal government with the power to “facilitate domestic and international commerce by permitting the federal government to adopt and enforce national measurement standards based upon the prevailing consensus” (

It’s fascinating to look at how Congress has used or not used this power in the years since the founding. France adopted the metric system in the 1790s and while Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams began to push Congress to convert from the English Imperial system to the metric system, Congress staunchly refused. Thus, states continued to establish their own weights and measures for trade purposes. “No Supreme Court case has explicitly held that the states are free to establish such standards in the absence of congressional action…” ( However, states continue to make these decisions in the absence of Congressional action.

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Over the years, Congress has acquiesced to the use of the English imperial system in the states even if it never formally authorized the imperial system as the national standard for weights and measures. In fact, in 1866, Congress finally did authorize the use of the metric system in the states but did not mandate this authorization (though, technically, they do have the power to do so).

As the rest of the world began to adopt and use the metric system, pressure mounted on Congress to make a move to shift the standard in the states from the imperial system to the metric system for the ease of trade, commerce and industry with other countries. In 1968, Congress authorized a study to determine if the United States should covert. The study concluded with a recommendation of shifting to the metric system over a period of ten years. Congress refused to pass this legislation necessary to begin this conversion process (

The United States is one of three remaining countries in the whole world (The United States, Myanmar and Liberia) that does not use the metric system for all its weights and measures. Instead, American children are taught both the metric and imperial systems. While there is still some pressure to convert, commerce and industry with other countries is hampered very little.

It’s truly a mystery to me why Congress hasn’t used its power–a power that is does legally and Constitutionally possess–to require the states to convert completely to the metric system. I have no quarrel either way but my interest is always piqued when government declines to use power, given their immense propensity to not only use power but also to expand and abuse that power. What about this power is so uniquely unappealing for those in government?

Granted, at this point, it would be a painful and dramatic conversion for Americans even if the rest of the world has converted to the metric system. And ironically, since America is one of the most economically powerful nations in the world and is still using the imperial system, the imperial system is still part of industry and commerce globally.

There’s much more history and nerdy detail to each system and where they came from, but for today, just understand that this is an enumerated power that Congress has not flexed its muscles to use.

And that my friends is a rarity indeed.

The Liberty Belle

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