Benjamin Banneker: Speaking Truth to Power

200px-BannekerAlmanac 1792Benjamin Banneker (Nov. 9, 1731 – Oct. 19, 1806) is best known for publishing six editions of his Almanacs between 1792 and 1797. As was the standard practice of the day, they contained information on medicines, medical treatment, tides, eclipses, and general astronomy. And like Benjamin Franklin, who published the popular “Poor Richard’s Alamanak,” Banneker made all his own mathematical calculations and astronomical observations.

Banneker also is widely known for assisting Andrew Ellicott in surveying the federal district that became Washington D.C., a job he viewed as the greatest adventure of his life (he was sixty years old at the time of the assignment), and for the invention of a wooden clock in the 1750s (one of the earliest in North America) that kept precise time until after his death a half-century later. Yet there is another significant event in his career for which he also should be remembered and celebrated—as a free “black” man, Benjamin Banneker spoke truth to power at a time when the vast majority of Africans in the Americas were enslaved.

In 1791 Banneker decided to pen the letter enclosed below to Thomas Jefferson, who at that time was serving as U.S. Secretary of State (1790-93). Various opinions have been proffered as to why Banneker chose to address Jefferson on the issue of slavery. In the final analysis, however, his decision may have been based solely on the fact that Jefferson knew of him, having approved of his role in assisting Ellicott on the survey project and the payment he received for his work.

In reading the letter it is difficult to ascertain if Banneker really believed Jefferson was “less inflexible in sentiments of this nature, than many others,” or if this was merely part of a broader rhetorical strategy to shame the future President of the United States into acknowledging the hypocrisy of a nation founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” yet ruled by a cabal of elite “white” slaveholders. Banneker’s letter was written four years after the publication of Jefferson’s Notes of the State of Virginia (1787), which contains within it the ideological and pseudo-scientific basis for the emergence of scientific racism in the US. If Banneker was familiar with Jefferson’s overtly racist views of “black” people, he gives no evidence of it in his carefully crafted appeal to the Virginia slaveholder’s intellect and humanity.

I included the full text of Banneker’s letter below. His brilliance shines forth in every paragraph. Expressing pride in his African heritage and appearance, revulsion at the racialized system of slavery that doomed most of his brethren to a permanent servitude, and an unwavering desire for freedom for all, Banneker fearlessly confronts one of the most powerful men in the nation. His text thus ranks among similar seminal documents of the African American freedom struggle including Frederick Douglass’ “Letter to his Former Master Thomas Auld” (1848), James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew James” (1962), and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963).

Benjamin Banneker’s Letter to Thomas Jefferson
Maryland, Baltimore County, August 19, 1791

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 indispensable 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.

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race, and in that color which is natural to them of the deepest dye ; and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under that state of tyrannical thralldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty with which you are favored ; and which, I hope, you will willingly allow you have mercifully received, from the immediate hand of that Being, from whom proceeded every good and perfect Gift.

Sir, 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: look back, I entreat you, on the variety of dangers to which you were expose; reflect on that time, in which every human aid appeared unavailable, and in which even hope and fortitude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict, and you cannot but be led to a serious and grateful sense of your miraculous and providential preservation ; you cannot but acknowledge, that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of Heaven.

This, Sir, was a time when you clearly 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.

I suppose that your knowledge of the situation of my brethren, is too extensive to need a recital here ; neither shall I presume to prescribe methods by which they may be relieved, otherwise than by recommending to you and all others, to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to them, and as Job proposed to his friends, “put your soul in their souls’ stead ;” thus shall your hearts be enlarged with kindness and benevolence towards them ; and thus shall you need neither the direction of myself or others, in what manner to proceed herein. 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 therefore, 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.

And now, Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with the most profound respect,

Your most obedient humble servant,

Banneker published his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson’s response (shown below) in his 1793 almanac. He also included anti-slavery speeches and essays from England and America, and poetry by the African American poet Phillis Wheatley and the English anti-slavery poet William Cowper. This abolitionist manifesto, although technically an almanac, makes Banneker one of the first African American anthologists and publishers of anti-slavery literature.

Among Jefferson’s many achievements it also can be said with certainty that he is one of the founding fathers of scientific racism (see this excerpt of Query XIV from his Notes on the State of Virginia). He also stands out among his contemporaries as the supreme icon of American hypocrisy. His response to Banneker reeks of deceit when viewed against the note he wrote to Joel Barlow subsequent to Banneker’s death, which also is included below.

Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Benjamin Banneker, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 30,1791


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 colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & 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 & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, 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 colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedt. humble servt. Th. Jefferson

Jefferson’s letter to the Marquis de Condorcet addressed that same day (August 30, 1791) contained the following paragraph:

I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro, the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable Mathematician. I promised him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Patowmac, & in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an almanac for the next year, which he sent to me in his own handwriting, & which I inclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of Geometrical problems by him. add to this that he is a very respectable member of society. he is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talent observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends.

In 1809, three years after Banneker’s death, Jefferson expressed a different opinion of Banneker in a letter to Joel Barlow:

The whole do not amount, in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker. We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicot, who was his neighbor and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.

Nothing could be more evident of a “mind of a very common stature” than the above note from Jefferson. As he was inclined to do when confronted by undeniable evidence of “black” intelligence, Jefferson smeared the person in question with the odious lie that “white” patrons were responsible for their achievements or simply dismissed their work as inferior. Here is what the recently dubbed Monster of Monticello said about Phillis Wheatley in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but not poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet.

“Black misery” is a subject Jefferson knew well. His vampirish existence living off the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans intimately acquainted him with all forms of human suffering. And although his greed and arrogance would not allow him to acknowledge the humanity of the “black” folk who built his fine home and afforded him a lifestyle of luxury, Jefferson found himself unable to dismiss Benjamin Banneker, a “black” man with the genius and courage to speak truth to power and remind him the Emperor has no clothes.

Benjamin_Banneker_woodcut,_age_64Woodcut portrait of Benjamin (Banneker) taken from the title page of a Baltimore edition of his 1795 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac.


1 thought on “Benjamin Banneker: Speaking Truth to Power

  1. Pingback: HISTORY: Benjamin Banneker: Speaking Truth to Power | Neo-Griot

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