Benjamin Banneker, Thomas Jefferson and the Question of Racial Equality

In the year 1791 an unusual correspondence took place.  Benjamin Banneker, a free African American and an astronomer, mathematician, surveyor, almanac writer and farmer, wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.  Banneker’s letter was a plea for justice for African American slaves and a statement of racial equality and it challenged Jefferson’s suppositions of the inferiority of blacks.  At a time when most Americans shared Jefferson’s racial views, men like Benjamin Banneker were around to show the wrongness of such views.

Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731 to Mary and Robert Banneker.  Mary’s parents were Molly Welsh, a European, and Banneka, a member of the Dogon tribe in Africa that had knowledge of astronomy.  Banneka was originally a slave of Molly, but Molly freed and married him and they lived in a small farm to the west of Baltimore, Maryland.  This place was out of the way from the more mainstream South, so attitudes towards African Americans were more tolerant.  Mary received her learning from her parents, and she taught Benjamin how to read, farm, and interpret the sky.  This information is from wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Banneker).

As a teen, Benjamin Banneker was taught by Peter Heinrich, a Quaker farmer who built a school near the Banneker farm.  The Quakers were leaders of the antislavery movement in colonial America and its members were advocates of racial equality, which made them perfect neighbors for a free African American who needed friendship and access to education.  The Ellicotts, another Quaker family, supplied Banneker with books so he could learn more about astronomy and sent the family his astronomical calculations predicting solar and lunar eclipses.   In 1791, Banneker surveyed for Major Andrew Ellicott the 100 mile area that would later become the District of Columbia.   He created the Benjamin Banneker Almanac, which had his astronomical calculations.  An anti-slavery society published Banneker’s almanac from 1792 to 1797.  This almanac was the basis of Banneker’s initial correspondence between himself and Thomas Jefferson. 

Thomas Jefferson needs no introduction to most Americans.  The author of the Declaration of Independence, our third President, a champion of religiuos tolerance and of the values of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was one of the most influential of our Founding Fathers.  On the pressing question of slavery, one can judge Jefferson based on two parts of his life:  Jefferson’s actions before the 1780s, when he was an active leader in trying to abolish slavery;  and Jefferson after the 1780s, when he receded from a leadership role and tried to avoid the issue.  Joseph Ellis, in his insightful book, American Sphinx, wrote about Jefferson’s early activist role in trying to abolish slavery:

“If Jefferson had a discernible public position on slavery in the mid-1790s, it was that the subject should be allowed to retire gracefully from the field of political warfare, much as he was doing by retiring to Monticello.  This represented a decided shift from his position as a younger man, when he had assumed a leadership role in pushing slavery onto the agenda in the Virginia Assembly and the federal Congress.   His most famous formulations, it is true, were rhetorical:  blaming the slave trade and the establishment of slavery itself on George III in the Declaration of Independence;  denouncing slavery as amorally bankrupt intitution that was doomed to extinction in Notes on Virginia.  His most practical proposals, all of which came in the early 1780s, envisioned a program of gradual abolition that featured an end to the slave trade, the prohibition of slavery in all the western territories and the establishment of a fixed date, he suggested 1800, after which all newly born children of slaves would be emancipated.  To repeat, up through this stage of his political career, he was a member of the vanguard that insisted on the incompatibility of slavery with the principles on which the American republic was founded.  Throughout this early phase of his life it would have been unfair to accuse him of hypocrisy for owning slaves or to berate him for failing to provide moral leadership on America’s most sensitive political subject.  It would in fact have been much fairer to applaud his efforts, most of them admitedly futile, to inaugurate antislavery reform and to wonder admiringly how this product of Virginia’s planer class had managed to develop such liberal convictions.”

In 1769 Jefferson proposed unsuccessfully that the Virginia House of Burgess emancipate the slaves of Virginia.  In 1778 he successfully passed a bill through the same legislature for the banning of future slaves to Virginia.  Jefferson authored on April 1784 a proposal to the Continental Congress that would’ve abolished slavery in the Northwestern Territory of the U.S.  that failed to pass by a single vote.   As President, he signed a bill abolishing the slave trade in 1807. 

As Joseph Ellis noted, after the mid 1780s, Jefferson stopped taking the lead in the fight for the abolition of slavery.   Two reasons stand out.  At around the mid 1780s, Jefferson began to realize how deeply in debt he was.   A large amount of Jefferson’s wealth depended on the value of his slaves, through either the selling or renting out of his slaves.  This was one way in which Jefferson could raise capitol to fend off his creditors.  So Jefferson wanted an emancipation plan that would compensate the slaveowners, and he felt that the U.S. government just didn’t have the money to do so. 

Also, Thomas Jefferson wanted to free the slaves, but he also wanted a way for the black population to be separated from the white population.  He gave his reasons in his Notes on Virginia:

“Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites;  ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained;  new provocations;  the real distinctions that nature has made;  and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race”

Unlike some of the other Founding Fathers who were against slavery, Jefferson shared some of the same racist assumptions as many whites at the time.  Some of the Founders, like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, felt that any perceived inferiority of African Americans was due to the degrading instititution of slavery and was not inherent in their race, which enabled them to see a time when freed African Americans could be integrated with whites in American society.   While Jefferson deplored slavery, he felt that African Americans were inferior in certain areas and he noted those areas in his book Notes on the State of Virginia.  This made him very pessimistic about any integrated racial society.

Even with the prejudiced atmosphere of the time, however, there were many African American accomplishments that could contadict Thomas Jefferson’s racial assumptions.  Phillis Wheatley was a famed African American poetess who was producing poems as good as any white poet.  Henry Wiencek, in his book, Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, notes that 5,000 African Americans fought in George Washington’s army, and George Washington handpicked the Rhode Island unit, which happened to be 75 percent black, to carry out the most important military assignment that eventually won the war.  Benjamin Banneker, with his proven accomplishments in astronomy, surveying, mathematics, and writing, directly challenged Jefferson in his letter of August 19, 1791 (http://afroamhistory.about.com/library/blbanneker_letter.htm).

Benjamin Banneker begins his letter with a plea to Jefferson to help relieve the sufferings of those African Americans living under the yolk of slavery.  Banneker wrote:

“Sir,
I am fully sensible of the greatness of that freedom, which I take with you on the present occasion ; a liberty which seemed to me scarcely allowable, when I reflected on that distinguished and dignified station in which you stand, and the almost general prejudice and prepossession, which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion.

 I suppose it is a truth too well attested to you, to need a proof here, that we are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world ; that we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt ; and that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.

 Sir, I hope I may safely admit, in consequence of that report which hath reached me, that you are a man far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature, than many others ; that you are measurably friendly, and well disposed towards us ; and that you are willing and ready to lend your aid and assistance to our relief, from those many distresses, and numerous calamities, to which we are reduced. Now Sir, if this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us ; and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath given being to us all ; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties ; and that however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him.

 Sir, if these are sentiments of which you are fully persuaded, I hope you cannot but acknowledge, that it is the indispensible duty of those, who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who possess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burden or oppression they may unjustly labor under ; and this, I apprehend, a full conviction of the truth and obligation of these principles should lead all to. Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves, and for those inestimable laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous, that every individual, of whatever rank or distinction, might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof ; neither could you rest satisfied short of the most active effusion of your exertions, in order to their promotion from any state of degradation, to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.”

Benjamin Banneker directly repudiates the racist notions that somehow African Americans have inferior mental endowments that whites and that they are a more brutish race.   It seems that Banneker has heard of Jefferson efforts as a young man to abolish slavery through legislation and his outspoken criticism of the institution, and he hopes that Jefferson shares also Banneker’s belief on black’s intellectual equality with whites.  The purpose of Banneker’s letter seemed to be to persuade Jefferson, as Secretary of State of the U.S., to continue his efforts to fight for the emancipation of African Americans and to fight the prejudices that have grown around this race.   Banneker used Jefferson’s own words to try get Jefferson to continue in his fight.

“This, Sir, was a time when you cleary saw into the injustice of a state of slavery, and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition. It was now that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here was a time, in which your tender feelings for yourselves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great violation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings, to which you were entitled by nature ; but, Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

Banneker used the words of the Declaration of Independence to show Jefferson to show the contradictions between the high ideals of freedom and equality of America and the practice of slavery within its borders.   Jefferson’s attempts of abolishing showed that he was well aware of those contradictions, but having an African American point out those contradictions to him must have been jarring.    Banneker’s letter was a direct reproach towards Jefferson’s own racist beliefs and I hope it had the effect of changing them.  As proof of the intellectual prowess of Afrian Americans, Banneker offered the example of his own almanac, which he sent along with this letter.  He wrote:

“And now, Sir, although my sympathy and affection for my brethren hath caused my enlargement thus far, I ardently hope, that your candor and generosity will plead with you in my behalf, when I make known to you, that it was not originally my design ; but having taken up my pen in order to direct to you, as a present, a copy of an Almanac, which I have calculated for the succeeding year, I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led thereto.

 This calculation is the production of my arduous study, in this my advanced stage of life ; for having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the secrets of nature, I have had to gratify my curiosity herein, through my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study, in which I need not recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages, which I have had to encounter.

And although I had almost declined to make my calculation for the ensuing year, in consequence of that time which I had allotted therefor, being taken up at the Federal Territory, by the request of Mr. Andrew Ellicott, yet finding myself under several engagements to Printers of this state, to whom I had communicated my design, on my return to my place of residence, I industriously applied myself thereto, which I hope I have accomplished with correctness and accuracy ; a copy of which I have taken the liberty to direct to you, and which I humbly request you will favorably receive ; and although you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its publication, yet I choose to send it to you in manuscript previous thereto, that thereby you might not only have an earlier inspection, but that you might also view it in my own hand writing. “

Jefferson replied to Banneker in August 30, 1791.  He wrote a gracious letter which stated:

“Sir,
I thank you, sincerely, for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men ; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.

I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.

 I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble Servant,

THOMAS JEFFERSON.”

I don’t know if Jefferson changed his views on race after reading Banneker’s letter, but I hope it did.  Jefferson is one of my heroes, and I have other heroes, like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Malcolm X, who held racist views as young men but had the capacity to outgrow those racist views.  Banneker did a service to directly challenge the prejudice of his times with his letter to Jefferson and the example of his intellectual accomplishments.

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Since my time in college, my goal has been to be a successful children’s book illustrator. I’ve illustrated 3 books: Two Moms the Zark and Me by Johnny Valentine in 1993; Night Travelers by Sue Hill in 1994; and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book Volume 2 for Cherubic Press in 1998. I’ve painted murals for Lester Shields Elementary School in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library, and Grace Community Church in Los Altos. I’ve had a few illustrations published in South Bay Accent Magazine and I will have an illustration published in the January/February issue of Tikkun magazine.
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2 Responses to Benjamin Banneker, Thomas Jefferson and the Question of Racial Equality

  1. A very comprehensive look at this – much of Jefferson’s character and assumption remain troubling to me – how did such a scientist and thinker reconcile these beliefs. On the other hand, I have read more than a dozen Washington biographies. I think that in addition to having been the greatest American, he is in the top ten of humanity – the one guy you liked to meet.

  2. angelolopez says:

    Thank you Raymond for your comment. I really don’t know the answer to your question about Jefferson’s character. He was such a contradictory man- on the one hand he was a strong fighter for emancipation, yet on the other hand, he held racist beliefs against African Americans. Why couldn’t Jefferson see what George Washington, Benjamin Frankllin, John Adams, Thomas Paine and many of the other Founding Fathers saw about the fallacies of racial inequality.

    I agree with you on George Washington. He was a great American, and he also freed his slaves after he died. If you’re interested I wrote a post on that at https://angelolopez.wordpress.com/2008/07/09/george-washington-and-the-freeing-of-his-slaves/. Have a happy holidays.

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