Quote of the moment: What John Adams DID NOT SAY about Congress

It’s a great line, an almost-Mark Twain-ism that makes people of all political strips smile.  It’s attributed to John Adams:

I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress!

There’s a problem: John Adams didn’t say it.

It’s a line from the 1969 Broadway musical comedy 1776!

The character John Adams in the play said it.

Playwright Peter Stone, Theatrical Rights image

Playwright Peter Stone wrote the witticism attributed to John Adams.  Theatrical Rights image

We should more accurately attribute it to the play’s book’s author, Peter Stone.

What John Adams did not say about Congress, Peter Stone wrote.  Such wit deserves proper attribution.

Mention of “law firms” gives away the origin’s being much later than Adams’s — Adams died, as you know, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.   “Law firms” is 20th century language.

A day after Fulbright & Jaworski LLC announced a merger with Norton Rose, one might almost wish that law firms would be just three people.  Norton Rose Fulbright starts out with 3,800 lawyers in 55 offices around the world.  [Conflict of interest note:  My spouse works at Fulbright & Jaworski.]  The distaste with lawyers in the Stone quote also doesn’t ring to the times of the American Revolution.  Good lawyer jokes probably existed then, but they didn’t really rise until the lawyerly pettifogging of the 19th century — see Dickens’ Mr. Bumble in Chapter 51 of Oliver Twistor the entire text of Bleak House, for examples.   Twain joked about Congress, but a joke about both Congress and lawyers probably was rare before 1910.  (I am willing to be disabused of this idea, if I am wrong . . . comments are open.)

Wikiquote’s rapid improvement provides us with a good check on whether Adams said it — Wikiquote points us clearly to Peter Stone instead.

Stone died in 2003, much underappreciated if you ask me.  Stone might be said to be among the greatest ghost speechwriters in history based on 1776! alone,  creating lines for John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — three of the greatest authors and (sometimes reluctant) speakers of their day, and of all history.  Stone’s plays include Titanic and Two by Two, his screenplays include Charade, Arabesque, Mirage, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Father Goose.


13 Responses to Quote of the moment: What John Adams DID NOT SAY about Congress

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Also, John Adams’s works are online, and can be searched. I find him saying “law” and “firm,” but have not yet caught him saying “law firm.” Have you looked?

    C.f.: Works of John Adams, Volume VII, search for “law firm” .


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    19th century? It’s supposed to be an 18th century quote.

    I agree it’s possible someone would have used the phrase. I just think it’s unlikely John Adams did, or that it was common then.

    In any case, since we know it was Peter Stone who originated the quote, let’s just give him credit.


  3. J.D. says:

    Though it is absolutely correct that this is frequently incorrectly attributed to John Adams, some of the above reasoning is false. “Law firm” is not 20th century language. A cursory search through 19th century Supreme Court documents records the usage, such as in the following (printed 1845).


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    That the musical play “1776!” is a comedy is one more way we should understand that the credit for the line does NOT go to John Adams, who was not a comedy writer, but instead to Peter Stone, the playwright. Don’t you agree?


  5. sabatimus says:

    You’re aware that this is a comedy right? I’m sure Jefferson didn’t say “Mr Adams you are driving me to homicide!” either.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    More that John Adams didn’t really say, but with more wit than I can muster:



  7. […] and the words “law firm” written on the wall. But the concept is relatively recent. As this blog post points out, Adams died on July 4, 1826, but “law firms” are a 20th century concept. […]


  8. […] Quote of the moment: What John Adams DID NOT SAY about Congress […]


  9. […] This is an edited encore post, sadly made salient today by Congress’s inaction on required spending bills. […]


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    You’ve got it on DVD, yes? I haven’t seen the film in years. Actually have seen it only once.


  11. Jude says:

    I watch 1776 every year although I skip two stupid songs. The inaccuracies are frequently annoying, but the best thing about 1776 is the commentary for the restored version which discusses Howard da Silva’s reaction to being invited to the White House by Nixon; and Nixon’s censorship of the film, which thanks to people who didn’t follow orders, was reversed in the restored version. It’s the single most interesting movie commentary I’ve ever heard.


  12. I love that play (and the somewhat flawed movie adaptation thereof). It’s not surprising that the quote is misattributed to Adams, given that so much of his dialog (esp. his exchanges with his wife) are from his extensive correspondence.


  13. I still tear up at the end of 1776 when all the founding fathers sign the Declaration. — Even though that scene never happened. Good theatre is good theatre. :-)


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