For all his Enlightenment-influenced ideals, which manifested with the “all men are created equal” assertions of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson harbored complicated views of slavery and the abilities of those forced into lives of backbreaking labor.
On one hand, the Founding Father forcefully condemned the “execrable commerce” of slavery in an early draft of the Declaration and took legal steps toward phasing out the practice as a Virginia congressional delegate.
Then again, this was also a man who owned more than 600 enslaved people over the course of his lifetime, and who revealed his own carefully reasoned “suspicion” that Blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” in his Notes on the State of Virginia.
The contradictions drew pushback even in that era of widespread slavery, but no opposing stance was more notable than that of Benjamin Banneker, a free Black man who knew first-hand what a person of his race could do given the chance to flex his cerebral muscles.
Banneker earned notice for his work as an astronomer and surveyor
Banneker was born in 1731 in rural Baltimore County, Maryland, one of 200 free Blacks in an area of 4,000 enslaved and 13,000 white people, and grew up in relative comfort on a 100-acre tobacco farm.
Those factoids alone made him a rarity for his era, but Banneker also displayed uncommon brainpower and ingenuity. While in his early 20s, he constructed a perfectly working wooden clock after studying the gears of a pocket watch, an achievement described as “one of the curiosities of the wild region.”
He enjoyed more intellectual stimulation after befriending George Ellicott, a surveyor, mathematician and amateur astronomer who readily shared the contents of his library. Focused on tracking the motions of celestial bodies, Banneker successfully predicted a solar eclipse in 1789.
In 1791, Banneker joined Ellicott’s cousin Andrew to work as an assistant surveyor on the development of what would become Washington, D.C. He also put the finishing touches on a farmer’s almanac, which included his painstaking calculations for an ephemeris (celestial table), and sent it to a Philadelphia-based printer for publication.
Banneker used Jefferson’s own words to call out the injustice of slavery
These recent accomplishments in hand, Banneker penned a 1,400-word letter to Jefferson, then secretary of state, on August 17, 1791.
Noting that he was “of the African race, and in that colour which is natural to them of the deepest dye,” Banneker appealed to his subject as a man of fairness and reason:
“I apprehend you will readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and oppinions 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 however variable we may be in Society or religion, however diversifyed in Situation or colour, we are all of the Same Family, and Stand in the Same relation to him.”
He went on to remind Jefferson of his well-documented words:
“Suffer me to recall to your mind that time in which the Arms and tyranny of the British Crown were exerted with every powerful effort in order to reduce you to a State of Servitude. … it was now Sir, that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publickly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remember’d in all Succeeding ages. ‘We hold these truths to be Self evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happyness.'”
With that, he pinned the great statesman into a corner:
“But Sir how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind … 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 backed off by noting he would not “presume to prescribe methods by which [the situation] may be relieved,” and closed by casually mentioning he had included a hand-written copy of his soon-to-be-published almanac.
Jefferson delivered a positive reply
Jefferson’s response was quick and, while shorter, was certainly encouraging:
“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 colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America,” he wrote on August 30, 1791.
He added that he was relaying the almanac to Marquis de Condorcet of the French Academy of Sciences as “a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them,” and praised Banneker’s work and character in a letter to Condorcet composed that same day.
Jefferson’s reply appeared in an edition of the 1793 almanac and other publications, and Banneker went on to enjoy a moderately successful run with his handiwork, churning out 28 editions of his almanac between 1792 and 1797.
The Founding Father later dismissed Banneker’s accomplishments
While Banneker’s letter caught Jefferson’s attention, it had little effect on his views of slavery; Jefferson became the first owner of enslaved people to occupy the Executive Mansion as president, and he freed all of five enslaved people upon his death in 1826.
Furthermore, it seems the Founding Father eventually rejected Banneker’s example of Black potential, his evolved views captured in an 1809 letter to poet and politician Joel Barlow which downplayed Banneker’s abilities and suggested that assistance was needed to accurately complete the almanacs.
Unfortunately, much of Banneker’s writing was destroyed in a fire that engulfed his home after his death in 1806, but the surviving works offer a clear rebuttal to the views of Jefferson and many others of the era: Here was a Black man fully capable of enterprise and intellectual achievement, and wasn’t afraid to let some very important people know it.