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. It’s art in pursuit of history, but it’s not really history.
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.
Especially on a day when the U.S. Congress appears to be not only a collection of useless people, men and women, but useless people bent on destruction of our national institutions. Congress has fallen down on the job, failing to play its vital, Constitutional role of appropriating money to run the government.
Stone’s mention of “law firms” gives away the quote’s origins being much later than Adams — Adams died, as you know, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “Law firms” is 20th century language.
In an era of law firms so big the people in them cannot comprehend their size, such a statement might emerge. 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 Twist, or the entire text of Bleak House, for examples. Law firms in 1776 simply did not exist as large corporations, but more often as an office of an individual lawyer, or two or three. Mark 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. (The first two of those movies favorites of mine solely for the scores by Henry Mancini.)
1776! plays in revival in California’s Bay Area, at A.C.T. (see reviews from both the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle, linked below). One might wish Congressmen today would see the play. In 1776 the colonies in rebellion were unsure what to do next; the Declaration of Independence was not a foregone conclusion. The amazing collection of men — unfortunately no women — who populated the Second Continental Congress were predisposed to find ways around their differences, to make wise policies, and to keep things functioning. Rather than shut government down, they carefully instructed individual governments in the states to make preparations to operate without infusions of cash or policy direction from the Crown, even before deciding independence made sense. In short, they were dedicated to making things work.
Ironic that so many remember Peter Stone’s slam of Congress as incompetent, when the rest of his play book demonstrates that particular congress of men took quite an opposite view of life, and created a model for leadership we marvel at today.
- John Adams, 1765 (williamboggess.wordpress.com)
- Thought of the Day 10.30.12 John Adams (PART ONE) (ritalovestowrite.com)
- On This Day in 1800, John Adams Moves Into The White House (rememberinghistory.wordpress.com)
- Review: A rousing ‘1776’ at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (mercurynews.com)
- Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, Massachusetts (atlasobscura.com)
- ‘Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress…’ (washingtonpost.com)
- ‘1776’ musical remains relevant (sfgate.com)
- 12 Leadership Qualities Of An Often Overlooked President (forbes.com)
This is an edited encore post, sadly made salient today by Congress’s inaction on required spending bills.