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 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 Twist, or 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.