You are here

Isaac H. Tiffany

Isaac H. Tiffany[1] wrote Thomas Jefferson on August 8, 1816 from Schoharie, New York, asking for the former president's opinion of Mr. Gillies' 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 be translated by a republican? We regard with anxious & scrupulous suspicion, the precious relics which have passed through unhallowed hands." [2]

Jefferson responded on August 26, 1816, telling Tiffany that Gillies' translation was generally regarded more highly than Ellis', 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 went on to discuss the relationship between direct and representative democracy. The development of representative political institutions, Jefferson concluded, "has rendered useless almost everything 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 ancient, have been lost, or are unfaithfully rendered or explained to us." [3]

Tiffany answered Jefferson's letter on September 27, 1816, to explain his reverence for Aristotle and Montesquieu and to express his admiration for the 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."[4]

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. [5] There is no entry in Jefferson's register of letters to indicate 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."[6]

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 Tracy's review of Montesquieu[7] as the best place to look for a definition of 'government'. [8]

This exchange seems to have been the end of their correspondence.


  1. This article is based on Jay Boehm, Monticello Research Report, September 1997.
  2. Isaac H. Tiffany to Thomas Jefferson, 8 August 1816. Recipient copy at Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers:
  3. L&B 15:65-66. Polygraph copy available online at
  4. Isaac H. Tiffany to Thomas Jefferson, 27 September 1816. Recipient copy at Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers:
  5. Isaac H. Tiffany to Thomas Jefferson, 12 January 1817. Recipient copy at the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers: (Note that the document is dated by the Library of Congress as December, 1816.) Enclosure:
  6. Isaac H. Tiffany to Thomas Jefferson, 18 March 1819. Recipient copy at the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers:
  7. Antoine Destutt de Tracy, A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws (Philadelphia: William Duane, 1811).
  8. Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 4 April 1819. Polygraph copy at Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers:

Further Sources

  • Roscoe, William E. History of Schoharie County, New York, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., 1882. Chapter 20 contains a brief sketch of Isaac Tiffany; the text is available online at
Filed In: 


Login or register to participate in our online community.