To Issac H. Tiffany – April 4, 1819 (Transcript)

The following is a two page letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in response to Mr. Tiffany’s chart pictorially showing the structure of the United States government (I would like to thank Aserathos for his assistance in determining some of the harder to read words).



Monticello Apr. 4 1819


After thanking you for your comprehensive tabular chart of the governments of the US, I must give you the answer which I am obliged to give to all who propose to me to replunge myself into political speculations, “Semex sum, et levissimis cunis impar.” I abandon politics, and accommodate myself cheerfully to things as they go; confident in the wisdom of those who divest them, and that they will be better and better directed in the progressive course of knowledge and experience. Our successors start on our shoulders. They know all that we know, and will avoid to that stock the discoveries of the next 50 years; and what will be their amount we may estimate from the last 50 years have added to the science of human concerns. The thoughts of others, as I find them on paper, are my amusement and delight; but the labor of the mind in abstruse investigation are irksome, and writing itself is become a slow and painful operation, occasioned by a stiffened wrist, the consequences of a former dislocation.

I will however essay the two definitions which you say are more particularly interesting at present. I mean those of the terms Liberty & Republic, aware however they have been so multifariously applied as to convey no precise idea to the mind. Of Liberty, then I would say that in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will, but rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add “within the limits of the law;” because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.

I will add 2nd that a pure republic is a state of society in which every member, of mature and sound mind, has an equal right of participation, personally, in the direction of the affairs of the society, such a regimen is obviously impracticable beyond the limits of an encampment, or of a very small village. When numbers, distances, or force oblige them to act by deputy, then their government continues republican in proportion only as the functions they still exercise in person are more or fewer, and as in those exercised by deputy the right of opportunity their deputy is pro hac vice only, or for more or fewer purposes, or for shorter or longer terms.

If by the word government, you mean a classification of its forms, I must refer you, for the soundest which has ever been given, to Tracy’s Review of Montesquieu, the ablest political work which the last century of years has given us. It was translated from the original MS., and published by Duane a few years ago; and is since published in the original French at Paris. With my thanks for your chart accept the assurance of my great respect.

Th. Jefferson

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2 Responses to To Issac H. Tiffany – April 4, 1819 (Transcript)

  1. MattyP says:

    I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on what Thomas Jefferson said about the republic.

    • sleepysalsa says:

      It sounds to me as if Jefferson is describing to Tiffanny how a direct democracy would work, hence his emphasis on the size (like when he mentioned “very small village”). His elaboration on republicanism appears as if only it can continue provided those deputies (that is, representatives) are directly accountable to their constituents.

      Again, perhaps I am missing something here, but I think it certainly generates doubt about the whole “America is a republic, not a democracy” notion, doesn’t it?

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