Thomas Jefferson Papers

George Alexander Otis to Thomas Jefferson, 4 January 1821

From George Alexander Otis

Philadelphia 4th January 1821.


I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your respected and benign letter of 25th Ulto: and especially, the signal honour you have deigned to confer on me in transmitting my translation to the Author. It is assuredly the most flattering, and altogether the most grateful to my feelings of any circumstance that could have befallen me. Though I have been several years in different parts of Europe, it was not my good-fortune to make the acquaintance of a man whose writings have inspired me with more enthusiasm than those of any other modern European; and to be thus introduced to him, is a gratification of no common magnitude. The plan of his History seemed to exact a specimen of American deliberative eloquence; if the genuine speeches of those who took part in the great debate upon the question of independency, have been preserved, it has not been my fortune to meet with them. If they exist, they might be given in the form of notes to the next edition, should another be called for. The subject of History has appeared to me, from youth upwards, the most useful as well as delightful branch of literature; and with a faint hope of being Some day in a situation to exercise my pen upon that of my own Country, I have made a long study of the fine models you have indicated, and especially of Livy, Tacitus, Sallust and Thucydides. Xenophon &c.

The greatest happiness that could fall to my lot, would be that of contributing to turn the attention of my young fellow citizens to a subject which I have regretted to remark that they are generally very superficially acquainted with; and that in consequence of the insupportable dullness of our vernacular writers, with some honorable exceptions. Belknap &c. The wide extent over which American readers are dispersed, preventing frequent and easy communication, except for Newspapers, is certainly rather a discouraging circumstance for domestic literary enterprises of considerable moment and difficulty. But the unworthy reflections upon our national character, found in most of the British writers, seems a motive for encouraging the feeble attempts which may be made to substitute, little by little, Books of our own production, at least in a degree sufficient to correct the false1 impressions that must be the inevitable result of an exclusive reading of English Books. Their books of travels in a particular manner, appear calculated to give an unfavourable idea of all the nations they visit, from the contempt they have for all foreigners. And these would seem to have a more extensive circulation among us than most others, excepting their novels and romances.

I find it impossible to express the grateful emotions which are awakened in my breast, by the extreme goodness with which you are pleased to express your good wishes for my Success; but your habitual benevolence Renders it Superfluous; for the being that does good to his fellow being well knows the effect it must produce upon his heart.

I have the honour to be with the highest veneration and sincerity sir, Your obliged humble Servant

George Alexander Otis.

RC (DLC); between dateline and salutation: “Honble Thomas Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 10 Jan. 1821 and so recorded in SJL.

In a preface to his translation of Botta, History of the War, 1:vii, Otis made the remark that “He has been told that his countrymen have no taste for literature, with the exception, however, of Poesy, and the Tales of my Landlord; and that a History of the War of American Independence, has no better fate to hope for than to continue to incumber the shelves of the bookseller. But his impressions are different: he thinks, on the contrary, that, as the Tales of my Landlord, themselves in a degree historical, and penned with talent, are in universal request, the existence of a taste in literature among American readers is a thing demonstrated.” Otis was referencing Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of My Landlord, a set of seven historical novels published in four series between 1816 and 1832.

1Word interlined.

Index Entries

  • American Revolution; books on search
  • Belknap, Jeremy; writings of search
  • books; novels search
  • books; of poetry search
  • books; on American Revolution search
  • books; on history search
  • Botta, Carlo Giuseppe Guglielmo; History of the War of the Independence of the United States of America (trans. G. A. Otis) search
  • Botta, Carlo Giuseppe Guglielmo; Storia della Guerra dell’ Independenza degli Stati Uniti d’America search
  • Great Britain; and U.S. search
  • History of the War of the Independence of the United States of America (C. G. G. Botta; trans. G. A. Otis) search
  • Livy; works of search
  • Otis, George Alexander; letters from search
  • Otis, George Alexander; translatesHistory of the War of the Independence of the United States of America (C. G. G. Botta) search
  • Sallust; works of search
  • Scott, Sir Walter; Tales of My Landlord search
  • Storia della Guerra dell’ Independenza degli Stati Uniti d’America (C. G. G. Botta) search
  • Tacitus; writings of search
  • Tales of My Landlord (W. Scott) search
  • Thucydides; works of search
  • United States; and Great Britain search
  • United States; literature of search
  • Xenophon; works of search