Thomas Jefferson Papers

Isaac H. Tiffany to Thomas Jefferson, 27 September 1816

From Isaac H. Tiffany

Schoharie 27 Sept. 1816.

Venerable Sir.

While reading the “Spirit of Laws,” at College, my curiosity was highly excited to become acquainted with Aristotle, by the mention made of him by the author. The illustrious Grecian had thought1 so much & written so well, that the lapse of 2000 years has enabled Montesquieu to add but scanty improvements. Aristotle teaches to develope & establish many permanent, uniform & universal truths.   It is unfortunate that the presidents & professors of our Seminaries of learning are seldom adequately acquainted with the existing municipal laws of the nations of the earth & their administration, to form qualified & correct opinions relative to the fundamental laws which exist only in form & fame, but are dead in act & force. Thus unversed, & unaware of the importance of this distinction between form & fact, made by both the above authors, & particularly applied by the latter to England, the teachers do not sufficiently impress it on the student’s mind, & a graduate carries the bias received from Montesquieu2 & Delolme, confirmed by Coke, Blackstone & others, to the bench & into the capitol itself. Years of active experience may wipe away the Stain; but from the pulpit, it is more indelible. An American, finding no established system of education, pursuing his researches from generals to particulars, from effects to causes, & from terminations, through history, to origins of courts & Systems, Seizes3 on authors recommended4 by reputation or presented by chance. The works of British novelists & reviewers, pensioned to decieve & powerful to persuade, find votaries in every eye that Can read; every bosom that can feel—They kindle the imagination; expel the Bible, & usurp the dominions of reason & religion. The influence of the British muse is still more irresistible. Dear maid, She has her hour of bloom & song—

Yet hence O Heaven! convey that fatal face
And from destruction save the Trojan race.”

And She Shews evident Symptoms of decline. Her Sisters of Greece & Rome have ceased their tuneful lays. Each has Sung Sweetest in her country’s cause. Columbia’s muse is yet to rise; must yet begin her song. Asia was first, America will close the circle of the muses.

The era of the invention or discovery of the representative principle has been considered problematical. Gillies denies it to be of modern date.5 Some seek it’s origin in the woods of Germany. The author of Publius or the Federalist, supposes it to have been recognized & practised in the executive & legislative departments of antient; democratical governments;6 but that it not being then understood to exclude the collective body of the people from these departments, it was therefore necessarily confined in operation to cities & their Suburbs. And Aristotle, thought it probable that “political, like all other inventions, have been often discovered and often lost; and that many institutions have been laid aside and revived, times without number.” The American constitution is a new order of Structure, associating with admirable skill & intelligence the estimable parts of7 successful & celebrated political fabrics of every age, with new principles, arrangements & combinations, all fitted to the expansive scale of thought & action in America. We confidently trust for its duration in the Simple and Safe contrivance for its amendment, from time to time, as the people may will. Ye who achieved this, will be blessed forever.

In the judiciary department, there yet exists authority not subject to the Controul of the people, at Short periods; & to this I have presumed to refer the earnest wishes expressed in your letter. The test or term of “Good behaviour” is equivocal. The intricacy of forms; the length, expense & difficulty of proceeding by impeachment; the strict rules of testimony & the technical Constructions of law, may secure an occupant upon the bench, when his faculties are impaired by age, disease or prejudice. He may be in contemp[t] yet lord over an insulted people. The objections of Publius to periodica[l] appointments are hypothetical & argumentative; they are but illy Supported by the example of England, which he cites. Besides, the history & reasoning which would be applicable there, would not be, here. Uniformity of decision are not inconsistant with such appointments when decisions are reported & judges are, as Publius presumes they ought to be, Selected from the bar. That hopes & fears have influenced the judge exposed to the passions of a tyrant or a city populace, who, in a breath could elevate or destroy him, all history discloses; but that the8 judiciary of the U. States, should corruptly Seek popularity among a nation scattered over 600 mil[lions] of acres, is an imaginary alarm. Popularity, in the apprehended view, might be more easily secured by irresponsibility of power in Salary, for life. The constitution of N. York superannuates a judge at 60. Experience has amply attested the prudence of this provision, though it may have been doubted, or disapproved, when Publius wrote. Illustrious examples of the force of mental faculties to the term of prolonged life, are but favoured exceptions from the ordinary course of nature.

Your actual experience of oppresive, anarchical & imbecile governments before, during & subsequent to, the revolutionary war,—in the Construction of the present constitution, Service in Several of its departments, & finally direction9 & presidency over all, without expectancy of future employment in any, entitles your opinion of its excellencies or defects, to unrivalled10 authority. Nothing Could be more interesting to be known.

Receive my acknowledgements for what you have pleased to communicate, for I listen to your counsels with reverenced rapture.

May God long preserve your health & life—

I. H. Tiffany.

RC (DLC); edge trimmed and chipped; dateline at foot of text; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson, Esqr—Monticello—Va.”; stamp canceled; franked; postmarked Schoharie Bridge, 27 Sept.; endorsed by TJ as received 10 Oct. 1816 and so recorded in SJL.

yet hencetrojan race is from book 3, lines 209–10, of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad (The Iliad of Homer [London, 1750; for eds. owned by TJ, see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4264, and TJ’s copy of vol. 1 of 1750 London ed. in ViCMRL], 1:182). The historian John gillies asserted that no one with “the least tincture of learning” could maintain that “the Greeks were totally unacquainted with representative government” (Gillies, Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics [London, 1797; 2d ed., London, 1804; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 11 (no. 640)], 2:64).

James Madison, writing as “Publius” in the federalist, number 63, contended that the superiority of the American form of government to that practiced in ancient Greece lay primarily in the former’s “total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any share” in governance (Madison, Papers, Congress. Ser., 10:544–50, quote on p. 548). Aristotle’s comment about political inventions is from his Politics, 7.9.4 (Gillies, Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, 2:233; Aristotle: Politics, trans. Harris Rackham, Loeb Classical Library [1932; rev. ed. 1944; undated reprint], 580, 581).

The United States Constitution, article 3, section 1, stipulates that “judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour.” Alexander Hamilton cited the English example while arguing against periodical appointments in The Federalist, number 78 (Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton [1961–87], 4:655–63, esp. 656, 663).

1Manuscript: “thougt.”

2Manuscript: “Monstequieu.”

3Manuscript: “Seizeses.”

4Manuscript: “recmended.”

5Sentence interlined.

6Manuscript: “goverments.”

7Manuscript: “of of.”

8Manuscript: “the the.”

9Manuscript: “directin.”

10Manuscript: “urivalled.”

Index Entries

  • Aristotle; quoted search
  • Aristotle; study of search
  • Bible; mentioned search
  • Blackstone, William; Commentaries on the Laws of England search
  • books; classical search
  • books; on politics search
  • Coke, Sir Edward; Institutes of the Laws of England search
  • Commentaries on the Laws of England (W. Blackstone) search
  • Constitution, U.S.; and judicial tenure search
  • Constitution, U.S.; mentioned search
  • Delolme, Jean Louis; writings of search
  • education; I. H. Tiffany on search
  • Esprit des Lois (Montesquieu) search
  • Gillies, John; and representative government search
  • Greece, ancient; and representative government search
  • Greece, ancient; democracy in search
  • Hamilton, Alexander (1757–1804); and judicial tenure search
  • Hamilton, Alexander (1757–1804); The Federalist search
  • Homer; The Iliad of Homer (trans. A. Pope) search
  • Iliad (Homer); The Iliad of Homer (trans. A. Pope) search
  • Institutes of the Laws of England (E. Coke) search
  • Jay, John; The Federalist search
  • law; books on search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); and representative government search
  • Madison, James (1751–1836); The Federalist search
  • Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat; Esprit des Lois search
  • New York (state); constitution of search
  • Pope, Alexander; quoted search
  • Pope, Alexander; translator ofThe Iliad of Homer search
  • Revolutionary War; mentioned search
  • The Federalist (A. Hamilton, J. Madison, and J. Jay) search
  • Tiffany, Isaac Hall; and education search
  • Tiffany, Isaac Hall; and judicial tenure search
  • Tiffany, Isaac Hall; and representative government search
  • Tiffany, Isaac Hall; interest of in Aristotle’s works search
  • Tiffany, Isaac Hall; letters from search