Banneker, Benjamin and Jefferson, Thomas

views updated

Banneker, Benjamin and Jefferson, Thomas

Excerpt from "A Letter to Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson's

Written August 19 and August 30, 1791
Available at University of Virginia Library (Web site)

On August 19, 1791, Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806), a free black man and resident of Maryland, wrote a letter to then–Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). In the letter, he eloquently pleaded with Jefferson to use his influence to bring an end to slavery. Possessing a brilliant mind, Banneker was a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor.

Banneker's maternal grandmother was Molly Welsh, a white British woman who arrived by ship in Maryland in 1683. Welsh established a small but profitable tobacco farm and married one of her two slaves, Banna Ka. The spelling of his name eventually ended up as Banneker. Welsh's daughter Mary married a freed black slave named Robert and the two of them kept Banneker as their family name. Benjamin was Mary and Robert's first child, born in 1731. Soon, he also had three sisters. They all lived in Welsh's cabin and continued to operate their tobacco farm, which provided a good living. At that time, it was very unusual for blacks to own property. Most blacks in America labored in slavery.

By 1737, Robert and Mary Banneker bought an additional 100 acres next to Welsh's land, added six-year-old Benjamin's name to the deed, then built a log cabin that Benjamin would live in for the rest of his life. Benjamin's grandmother taught her grandchildren to read and write from the Bible that she had brought with her from England. It was the family's only book. Young Benjamin proved to be a rapid learner. By the age of twenty-one, Benjamin had taught himself about literature, history, religion, the art of writing, and science. However, his real love was mathematics, solving problems and puzzles. He carved from wood a clock with the proper number of gears and wheels that he calculated would be needed to keep perfect time. Neighbors came from all around to see the only clock in the area. Instead of using clocks, farmers usually followed books called almanacs to determine planting seasons, the calendar year, and even the time of day. Almanacs were based on calculations of the position of stars and planets and published yearly.

In 1771, the Ellicott family bought a large amount of land next to the Banneker acreage. George Ellicott (1760–1832) became good friends with Benjamin through their mutual love of science. Ellicott, an accomplished surveyor and astronomer, taught his skills to Benjamin. Using equipment borrowed from Ellicott, Benjamin studied the planets and stars every night.

By 1790, Benjamin was ready to publish his own almanac. Members of abolitionist societies (organizations opposed to slavery) from Maryland and Pennsylvania heard of Banneker's accomplishments and helped him find a publisher. They believed if an almanac authored by a free black was published, it would serve as valuable proof of the sound intellectual ability of blacks and help put an end to slavery.

In late 1790, President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) hired Andrew Ellicott (1754–1820), a cousin of George Ellicott, to survey land for the new capital, Washington, D.C. Ellicott needed an assistant to make astronomical calculations for the survey, and he hired Banneker. George Ellicott's wife helped Banneker pick out clothes for the trip since he would be meeting many important people. In January 1791, Banneker left his farm for the first time and joined the team assigned to survey the land for the capital city of the United States. Banneker finished his work in late spring. He returned to his farm and continued making calculations for a 1792 almanac that was published in the fall of 1791. In August 1791, he wrote his famous letter to Jefferson, explaining why Jefferson should join the fight against slavery.

In 1790, the first U.S. census revealed that of the four million U.S. residents, seven hundred thousand were black slaves. The conditions of slavery varied greatly around the country and between large and small farms. There were urban slaves and rural slaves, house slaves and field hands. The average slave owner owned only a few slaves, often one or two. A relatively small number of slave owners lived on large plantations with one hundred or more slaves. Most slaves lived in Southern states and worked on farms and plantations. On large cotton, rice, tobacco, and sugarcane farms, field labor was backbreaking work that went on from sunup to sundown. Male slaves on plantations also served as blacksmiths, gardeners, carpenters, shoemakers, painters, bricklayers, and plasterers. Slave women were cooks, cleaning maids, laundresses, spinners, and seamstresses. However, at peak harvest times, almost all slaves, including children, were sent to the fields.

Slaves had no rights or liberties. They were owned by the farm or plantation owner just as if they were livestock. Owners had final authority over their slaves. Depending on the needs of the owner, slave families either stayed together or were separated, sold off to different farms.

Banneker despised slavery and was determined to do something to help enslaved blacks. After becoming somewhat familiar with the reputations of powerful American leaders during his work surveying for the new capital, he chose Jefferson as the person he would write to about the condition of blacks in America. He decided to send Jefferson a 1792 almanac as a way of beginning the correspondence.

In the first two paragraphs, Banneker acknowledges that the world looks upon his race as "brutish," with little ability to think. Next, he states that he has heard Jefferson is a wise and reasonable man who does not look upon blacks so unfavorably. Banneker argues that blacks have the same abilities as all humans and that surely Jefferson would wish to extend human rights to blacks and end slavery. Banneker then explains he is a free black who has never lived under slavery. Asking Jefferson to recall Britain's oppression of the American colonies, Banneker reminds Jefferson of the words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Banneker argues that the "unalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" should be extended to everyone living in America, including blacks.

Jefferson's reply was short and courteous and expressed a desire to help slaves by "raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be." Jefferson thanked Banneker for the almanac and stated that the book would serve to prove the intellect of blacks.

Free Blacks

A free black was a black person generally of African birth or ancestry who was not a slave, not property of a slave owner. Sometimes slave owners simply set their slaves free; this was the most common way for slaves to gain their freedom. The second most common path to freedom was escape. Slaves who managed to escape often fled to Northern states. Other blacks, such as Benjamin Banneker, were free by birth—that is, they were born into free families.

The 1790 national census indicated that fewer than 60,000 free blacks lived in the United States. By 1810, there were 186,000 free blacks, about 13 percent of blacks in America. A third of the free blacks were in Virginia and Maryland, where most slaves also resided. Some 20 percent of the blacks in Maryland were free, while just 7 percent in Virginia were free. About 22,000 free blacks lived in Boston. There was also a large free black population in Philadelphia. By 1820, the free black population was more than 230,000.

Free black males found work on docks and with the merchant marines. Free black women frequently worked as domestic maids. Through the 1790s, a good percentage of free blacks lived in white households, working as housekeepers or laborers. However, by 1815 more were living in black households in emerging black communities.

Blacks had to arrange for their own education. The growing black communities established their own schools. In 1794, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery established its own school. In New York, the Manumission Society sponsored schools. (Manumission means abolition of slavery.)

Some free blacks established organizations to help and support other members of the black community. The Brown Fellowship Society in Charleston, South Carolina, was founded in 1790. In Philadelphia the Benevolent Society of St. Thomas was established to help black women; the African Friendly Society aided black men. Philadelphia had eleven such societies by 1811. A black American Masonic lodge, a service organization, was formed in Boston in the 1780s. Black Masons became an important part of the free black community in Philadelphia.

Free blacks did not enjoy the same privileges as the white population. For example, they could be sold back into slavery if they did not pay their taxes. Also, freed blacks could not vote. The first state constitutions of Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina did allow free blacks to vote. However, lawmakers in those states soon changed their minds and rewrote the laws to exclude blacks from voting. Delaware changed in 1792 and Maryland in 1810. Even the newly established nation's capital, Washington, D.C., prohibited free blacks from voting.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "A Letter to Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson's Response":

  • Banneker wrote his letter using an impressive vocabulary, the kinds of words used by highly educated men of his time. Most blacks could neither read nor write.
  • Paragraph by paragraph, Banneker presented a reasonable and logical argument, asking Jefferson to consider relieving the plight of slaves.

Excerpt from Benjamin Banneker's Letter to Thomas Jefferson

I [Benjamin Banneker] AM fullysensible 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 dignifiedstation in which you stand, and the almost general prejudice andprepossession, which is so prevalent in the world against those of mycomplexion.

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

Sir, I hope I may safelyadmit, in consequence of that report which hath reached me, that you are a man far lessinflexible in sentiments of this nature, than many others; that you are measurably friendly, andwell disposed towards us; and that you are willing and ready to lend your aid and assistance to our relief, from those many distresses, and numerouscalamities, to which we are reduced. Now Sir, if this is founded in truth, Iapprehend you will embrace every opportunity, toeradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generallyprevails with respect to us; and that your sentiments areconcurrent 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, withoutpartiality, afforded us all the samesensations andendowed us allwith the samefaculties; 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 tohim.

Sir, if these are sentiments of which you are fullypersuaded, I hope you cannot but acknowledge, that it is theindispensable duty of those, whomaintain 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 oroppression they may unjustly labor under . ... Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves, and for thoseinestimable laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not butbe solicitous, that every individual, of whatever rank or distinction, might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof . ...

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race ... and it is under a sense of themost profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under that state oftyrannical thralldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of mybrethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of thefruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty with which you are favored; and which, I hope, you will willinglyallow you have mercifully received, from the immediate hand ofthat Being, from whom proceedeth every good and perfect Gift.

Sir,suffer me to recall to your mind that time, in which thearms and tyranny of the British crown were exerted, with every powerful effort, in order to reduce you to a state ofservitude: look back, Ientreat you, on the variety of dangers to which you were exposed; reflect on that time, in which every human aid appeared unavailable, and in which even hope andfortitude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict, and you cannot but be led to a serious and grateful sense of your miraculous andprovidential preservation; you cannot but acknowledge, that the present freedom andtranquility which you enjoy you have mercifully received, and that it is thepeculiar blessing of Heaven.

This, Sir, was a time when you clearly saw into the injustice of a state of slavery, and in which you hadjust apprehensions of the horrors of its condition. It was now that yourabhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publiclyheld forth this true and invaluabledoctrine, 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 theyare endowed by their Creator with certainunalienable rights, and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Here was a time ... 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 thebenevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal andimpartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same timecounteract his mercies, indetaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression . ...

I suppose that your knowledge of the situation of my brethren, is too extensive to need a recital here; neither shall I presume toprescribe methods by which they may be relieved, otherwise than by recommending to you and all others, towean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you haveimbibed ... and asJob 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 myenlargement thus far, Iardently hope, that yourcandor and generosity will plead with you in my behalf, when I make known to you, that it was not originally mydesign; 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 thesucceeding year, I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led thereto . ...

Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson's Response to Benjamin Banneker


I [Thomas Jefferson] 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, and that the appearance of awant 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 moreardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as theimbecility of their present existence,and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, willadmit. 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 becauseI 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 mostobedt. humble servt. Th. Jefferson.

What happened next ...

The exchange of letters between Banneker and Jefferson was published as a pamphlet, a common way to issue information to the public. The following year Banneker's 1793 almanac also included the letter and reply. Banneker published an almanac every year until 1797, when competition caused sales to decline.

Any hopes that Banneker had about the immediate or gradual abolition of slavery ended abruptly in 1793 when inventor Eli Whitney (1765–1825) perfected the cotton gin. The newly improved device could remove seeds from cotton fifty times faster than a person could by hand. Whitney's invention came just in time, because newly mechanized textile mills in Britain had created a large demand for cotton. Suddenly cotton became a major cash crop for the South, meaning the need for slaves would not go away.

Even with the cotton gin, cotton farming required substantial labor. Cotton plants ripen at different times, so fields had to be picked as many as three times in a single harvest season. Therefore, cotton planters needed large labor groups on a steady basis, and as a result, slavery became a much more fundamental part of the Southern economy.

In the mid-1790s, planters discovered that sugarcane grew well in southern Louisiana. This discovery increased the demand for slaves as sugarcane plantations soon spread a hundred miles up the Mississippi River. Tobacco farmers in Maryland and northern Virginia began converting to wheat production when the tobacco market declined. As these changes took place, a major shift in slave ownership occurred. Maryland and Virginia farmers sold many slaves to cotton and sugarcane planters in the lower South. Interstate slave trade was thriving during this period, and black slave families were randomly broken apart.

The number of slaves in the United States rose sharply after the invention of the cotton gin and expansion of sugar cane farms. From the seven hundred thousand slaves in America in 1790, their numbers increased to nine hundred thousand in 1800.

Banneker earned enough money from the sale of his early almanacs that he was able to spend less time farming and more time pursuing various topics that caught his attention. He sold most of his land but continued to live in the house his parents had built until his death on October 9, 1806. Banneker did not live to see the end of slavery. However, the nation was taking small steps toward abolition. When Jefferson became president in 1801, he made sure Congress moved toward ending the importation of slaves by 1808. Congress passed the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves in 1807, and the ban went into effect on January 1, 1808 (see next excerpt). The act did not end slavery within the United States.

In his later years, Jefferson took no role in abolishing slavery. He continued to insist that slavery was wrong, just as he had in the 1780s and 1790s. However, he insisted it was even more wrong for the federal government to intrude on states or private citizens by attempting to abolish slavery. Letters Jefferson wrote to fellow Virginians in his later years indicate that he believed it would be better to secede (withdraw) from the union than to give in to the federal government if it threatened to end slavery. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826.

Did you know ...

  • Both Jefferson and George Washington, the first U.S. president, lived on Virginia plantations and owned slaves. Washington died in 1799, and his will called for his slaves to be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha Washington (1732–1802). She died in May 1802, and the slaves were freed. Jefferson made no such arrangements.
  • When U.S. leaders met in Philadelphia in 1787 to write the U.S. Constitution, they were anxious to avoid the topic of slavery; they feared that debate on the issue could tear apart the convention. They did avoid the subject as much as possible but decided to allow the importation of slaves for twenty more years (see next excerpt).

Consider the following ...

  • What kind of impression do you think Benjamin Banneker made on the team of white individuals and U.S. leaders planning the new U.S. capital?
  • Reread Jefferson's reply to Banneker's letter. Do you think it was appropriate? Write your own reply from a twenty-first-century point of view; then write another response, this time from the viewpoint prevalent in the 1790s.
  • Research various aspects of slave life. Imagine yourself doing slave labor as early as twelve and thirteen years of age. Share your research and thoughts with the class.

Sensible: Aware.

Station: High governmental position as U.S. secretary of state.

Prepossession: Prevailing attitude.

Complexion: Skin color.

Attested: Known.

Censure: Harsh criticism.

Brutish: Animal.

Mental endowments: Intellectual abilities.

Admit: Believe.

Inflexible in sentiments of this nature: Prejudiced against blacks.

Well disposed towards: Inclined to support.

Calamities: Miserable conditions.

Apprehend: Believe.

Eradicate: Eliminate.

Prevails: Exists.

Concurrent with: The same as.

Partiality: Favoring one race over another.

Afforded: Given.

Sensations: Ability to, for example, see and hear.

Endowed: Provided.

Faculties: Mental abilities.

Him: God.

Persuaded: Convinced.

Indispensable: Vital.

Maintain for themselves the rights of human nature: Are in power who protect their own right to freedom of speech and pursuit of happiness.

Oppression: Domination.

Inestimable: Invaluable.

Be solicitous: Insist.

Tyrannical thralldom: Slavery.

Brethren: Fellow blacks.

Fruition of those blessings: Results of personal freedom.

Allow: Admit.

That Being: God.

Suffer me to recall to your mind: Allow me to remind you about.

Arms and tyranny: Oppressive rule.

Servitude: Lack of liberty.

Entreat: Beg.

Fortitude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict: The strength to endure were fading during the Revolutionary War.

Providential: Determined by God.

Tranquility: Peacefulness.

Peculiar: Special.

Just apprehensions: Honest fears.

Abhorrence: Strong dislike.

Held forth: Spoke at length about.

Doctrine: Statement of principle.

Unalienable: Non-transferable.

Benevolence: Kindness.

Impartial: Balanced.

Counteract his mercies: Work against his kindness.

Detaining by fraud and violence: Unjustly enslaving.

Prescribe: Suggest.

Wean yourselves from: Let go of.

Imbibed: Taken in.

Job: Biblical figure.

Stead: Place.

Enlargement: Writing at length.

Ardently: Strongly.

Candor: Fairness.

Design: Intention.

Succeeding: Next.

Instant: Same month, August.

Want of them: Lack of talents.

Ardently: Passionately.

Imbecility: Foolishness.

Admit: Let in.

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 believed the almanac bears witness to the mental powers of blacks that are questioned by many in society.

Obedt. humble servt: Obedient and humble servant (serving as an elected official).

For More Information


Bedini, Silvio A. The Life of Benjamin Banneker. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972.

Cerami, Charles A. Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot. New York: J. Wiley, 2002.

Conley, Kevin. Benjamin Banneker. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

Web Sites

"Copy of a Letter from Benjamin Banneker to the Secretary of State, with His Answer." University of Virginia Library. (accessed on July 22, 2005).

"Who Was Benjamin Banneker?" The Banneker Center for Economic Justice. (accessed on July 22, 2005).

About this article

Banneker, Benjamin and Jefferson, Thomas

Updated About content Print Article