Isaac H. Tiffany wrote Thomas Jefferson on August 8, 1816, from Schoharie, New York, asking for the former president's opinion of John Gillies's English translation of Aristotle's works. The translator's commentary led Tiffany to doubt the fairness of the translation. He wrote, "Would it not be well, could a pure original be found, that the republican author should be translated by a republican? We regard with anxious & scrupulous suspicion, the precious relics which have passed through unhallowed hands."[1]

Jefferson responded on August 26, 1816, telling Tiffany that Gillies's translation was generally regarded more highly than William Ellis's, but that he himself had never seen it. Jefferson went on to say that people of the time "had just ideas of the value of personal liberty; but none at all of the structure of government best calculated to preserve it." Jefferson then discussed the relationship between direct and representative democracy. The development of representative political institutions, Jefferson concluded, "has rendered useless almost every thing written before on the structure of government: and in a great measure relieves our regret if the political writings of Aristotle, or of any other antient, have been lost, or are unfaithfully rendered or explained to us."[2]

Tiffany answered Jefferson's letter on September 27, 1816, to explain his reverence for Aristotle and Montesquieu and to express his admiration for the U.S. Constitution, especially the provisions for amending the document "as the people may will." Tiffany asked Jefferson to share his thoughts on the Constitution's "excellencies or defects."[3]

Jefferson did not respond to Tiffany's request. On January 12, 1817, Tiffany nevertheless wrote once again, this time to solicit Jefferson's thoughts on the mission statement of the Institute of the County of Schoharie.[4] There is no entry in Jefferson's register of letters to indicate that he responded to this request, either.

Two years later, on March 18, 1819, Tiffany once again wrote Jefferson seeking input on his pedagogical project. He presented the ex-president with a tabular chart of the governments of the United States and acknowledged that the list contained "omissions," which he intended to correct in a subsequent edition. Furthermore, Tiffany asked Jefferson to define for his appendices the terms "liberty," "republic," "constitution," "government," and "politics." After emphasizing his patriotic fervor, Tiffany concluded, "If my zeal & ignorance have required too much, pray Sir, excuse it for the motive's sake."[5]

On April 4, 1819, Jefferson responded. After underscoring his abandonment of political life, Jefferson supplied definitions of two terms, "liberty" and "republic." He then suggested Antoine Destutt de Tracy's Review of Montesquieu as the best place to look for a definition of "government."[6]

This exchange seems to have ended their correspondence.

- Jay Boehm, 1997Anchor

Further Sources


  1. ^ Tiffany to Jefferson, August 8, 1816, in PTJ:RS, 10:304. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Jefferson to Tiffany, August 26, 1816, in PTJ:RS, 10:349. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ Tiffany to Jefferson, September 27, 1816, in PTJ:RS, 10:417-19. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  4. ^ Tiffany to Jefferson, [received January 12, 1817], in PTJ:RS, 10:660-61. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  5. ^ Tiffany to Jefferson, March 18, 1819, in PTJ:RS, 14:144-46. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ Jefferson to Tiffany, April 4, 1819, in PTJ:RS, 14:201-02. Transcription available at Founders Online. For Jefferson's suggestion, see Antoine Destutt de Tracy, A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws (Philadelphia: William Duane, 1811). For his own notes on Tracy's work, see Jefferson's "Papers pertaining to the publication of Destutt de Tracy's works, 1807-1813."