Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 4 April 1819

To Isaac H. Tiffany

Monticello Apr. 4. 19


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. ‘Senex sum, et laevissimis curis impar.’ I abandon politics, and accomodate myself chearfully to things as they go; confident in the wisdom of those who direct them, and that they will be better and better directed in the progressive course of knolege and experience. our successors start on our shoulders. they know all that we know, and will add to that stock the discoveries of the next 50. years; and what will be their amount we may estimate from what 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 labors of the mind in abstruse investigations are irksome, and writing itself is become a slow and painful operation, occasioned by a stiffened wrist, the consequence 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 that 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 it’s 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 2dly 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, distance, 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 appointing their deputy is pro hâc vice only, or for more or fewer purposes, or for shorter or longer terms.   If by the word government, you mean a classification of it’s 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

RC (MWiW-C); addressed: “I. H. Tiffany esq. Schoharie bridge N.Y.”; franked; postmarked Milton, 6 Apr.; endorsed by Tiffany. PoC (DLC); edge chipped.

A variant of the phrase senex sum, et laevissimis curis impar (“I am an old man and unequal to the lightest of cares”) appears in Tacitus, Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. (All editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. Citations given below are to the edition mounted on the American Memory website of the Library of Congress and give the date of the debate as well as page numbers.) description ends , 14.54 (Tacitus, trans. Maurice Hutton, William Peterson, Clifford H. Moore, John Jackson, and others, Loeb Classical Library [1914–37; repr. ca. 2006], 5:192–3).

Index Entries

  • aging; TJ on his own search
  • books; on politics search
  • Commentaire sur l’Esprit des Lois de Montesquieu (Destutt de Tracy); publication of search
  • Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws (Destutt de Tracy); TJ on search
  • Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude; Commentaire sur l’Esprit des Lois de Montesquieu search
  • Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude; Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws search
  • Duane, William; and Destutt de Tracy’s works search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books and Library; receives works search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books and Library; TJ on reading of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; TJ on search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; aging search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Health; wrist injury search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Tacitus search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Destutt de Tracy’s works search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; liberty search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; reading search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; republicanism search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; younger generation search
  • law; and tyranny search
  • Tacitus, Cornelius; TJ quotes search
  • Tiffany, Isaac Hall; and definitions of political terms search
  • Tiffany, Isaac Hall; and political chart of U.S. search
  • Tiffany, Isaac Hall; letters to search
  • United States; political chart of search