Benjamin Banneker Letter To Thomas Jefferson Annotated Bibliography

RC (MHi); at head of text: “Thomas Jefferson Secretary of State”; endorsed by TJ as received 26 Aug. 1791 and so recorded in SJL. Engraved facsimile from FC (PHC); in Banneker’s hand; differs from RC in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and other respects (see notes for some examples); at head of text: “Thomas Jefferson Secretary of State”; at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Secretary of State Philadelphia.” The facsimile also includes the text of TJ’s reply of 30 Aug. 1791 and has the following printed note at the foot of the text: “The Letters, from which this facsimile is taken, are in the hand writing of Banneker, who copied them into the volume of Manuscripts, in which they have been preserved. His house and manuscripts were burnt soon after his decease, except this book which was at a neighbor’s at the time.”

Banneker’s accomplishments and the well-known exchange of letters between Banneker and TJ are described in Silvio A. Bedini, The Life of Benjamin Banneker (New York, 1972); see also Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1968).

The history of TJ’s changing attitudes toward Banneker reflects in miniature the contradiction in his views on the vexing issues of slavery and race relations in America. As revealed primarily in Notes on the State of Virginia, TJ firmly believed that slavery was a violation of the natural rights of man and hoped for its abolition. Yet he was equally convinced that blacks and whites could not peacefully coexist in freedom because of certain natural distinctions between them, such as color, temperament, and above all intellectual ability. He therefore argued that emancipation must be accompanied by colonization of the freed slaves beyond the limits of the United States.

In a widely read discussion that set the terms of debate on this issue in America for decades to come, TJ oscillated between ascribing black intellectual inferiority to the workings of nature and attributing it to the impact of slavery. Though at times he virtually suggested that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites by nature, in the end he left it to science to determine whether nature or environment was responsible for what he perceived to be a distressing absence of intellectual accomplishment among blacks, especially in the arts and sciences. “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only,” he concluded, “that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (Notes, ed. Peden description begins William Peden, ed., Notes on the State of Virginia, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , p. 137–43; Jordan, White over Black, p. 429–39). Benjamin Banneker was the first and only black man to challenge TJ’s suspicion directly during his lifetime.

The eldest child of a free black couple who owned a tobacco farm in Baltimore County, Maryland, Banneker began to emerge from obscurity in 1788, the year after the publication of the first American edition of Notes on the State of Virginia. At that time Banneker, then in his fiftyseventh year, borrowed a set of astronomical instruments and four works on astronomy from George Ellicott, a member of a distinguished family of Quaker entrepreneurs who opposed slavery and operated a group of gristmills near Banneker’s farm. Banneker applied himself to the study of astronomy and soon became so proficient in it that he conceived the idea of publishing an almanac in order to promote “the Cause of Humanity as many are of Opinion that Blacks are Void of Mental endowments” (Elias Ellicott to James Pemberton, 10 June 1791, PHi: Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers). Encouraged by George Ellicott and his brother Elias, a member of the Maryland Society for the Abolition of Slavery, Banneker prepared an ephemeris for the year 1791 that caught the attention of Major Andrew Ellicott, a cousin of the Ellicott brothers. He was so impressed by Banneker’s mathematical achievement that he brought it to TJ’s attention and, with TJ’s approval, employed Banneker as an assistant during the preliminary survey of the Federal District early in 1791 (Joseph Townsend to James Pemberton, 28 Nov. 1790, PHi: Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers; TJ to Condorcet, 30 Aug. 1791; Bedini, Banneker, p. 9–136).

Banneker soon won the support of several leading Quaker abolitionists in Maryland and Pennsylvania who were eager to take advantage of his scientific work to refute the growing belief in American society that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites by nature (Banneker to Andrew Ellicott, 6 May 1790; Joseph Townsend to James Pemberton, 14 and 28 Nov. 1790, all in PHi: Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers; Bedini, Banneker, p. 94–102; Jordan, White over Black, p. 445–8). Buoyed by the prospect of further support from key figures in the Maryland and Pennsylvania antislavery movements, Banneker finished a second ephemeris in June 1791. Members of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery recommended its publication in Philadelphia after David Rittenhouse, the foremost American scientist of the day, and William Waring, a noted Philadelphia astronomer, vouched for the accuracy of Banneker’s work. It was thus against this background of careful and intense preparation that Banneker wrote the above letter and sent a copy of his ephemeris for 1792 to the man who was not only a distinguished statesman, scientist, and critic of slavery in his own right, but also the author of the recent pessimistic analysis of black intellectual capabilities (Elias Ellicott to James Pemberton, 10 June and 21 July 1791, PHi: Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers; Notes, ed. Peden description begins William Peden, ed., Notes on the State of Virginia, Chapel Hill, 1955 description ends , p. 137–43; Bedini, Banneker, p. 137–52; Jordan, White over Black, p. 429–39, 455).

TJ’s polite response was heartening to Banneker and his supporters. He expressed hope for the appearance of “such proofs as you exhibit” that nature had endowed blacks with “talents equal to those of the other colors of men” and that their apparent absence among blacks was only the result of “the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America.” He also informed Banneker that he was sending his ephemeris to Condorcet, the noted philosophe, ardent opponent of slavery, and secretary of the Académie Royal des Sciences in Paris, so that it could be used to redeem blacks “against the doubts which have been entertained of them” (TJ to Banneker, 30 Aug. 1791; see also TJ to Condorcet, 30 Aug. 1791, wherein TJ was more specific about the significance of Banneker’s accomplishments).

At Banneker’s suggestion and with the strong agreement of his Quaker supporters, the exchange of letters with TJ was published in 1792 in a variety of forms for the express purpose of advancing the antislavery cause by demonstrating that black failure to match the intellectual achievements of whites was the result of slavery rather than nature (Bedini, Banneker, p. 158, 163, 166–8, 183–8). But the correspondence soon became little more than a weapon in the hands of TJ’s political enemies, who tried to use it to prove that he was a crypto-abolitionist. In the electoral campaigns of 1796 and 1800, southern Federalists cited his reply to Banneker as evidence that he favored “a speedy emancipation of the … slaves” (William Loughton Smith, The Pretensions of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency Examined … [United States, 1796], p. 9–10 [Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, 1952–1959, 5 vols. description ends No. 3174]; see also William Henry Desaussure, Address to the Citizens of South Carolina, on the Approaching Election of President and Vice-President of the United States [Charleston, S.C., 1800], p. 16 [Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, 1952–1959, 5 vols. description ends No. 3228]; and Bedini, Banneker, p. 280–1). Even after TJ’s reelection to the presidency, Thomas Green Fessenden, a Federalist satirist from New Hampshire, ridiculed TJ for allegedly abandoning the racial views set forth in Notes on the State of Virginia simply because of the “wonderful phenomenon of a Negro Almanac, (probably enough made by a white man)” (Thomas Green Fessenden, Democracy Unveiled, or, Tyranny Stripped of the Garb of Patriotism, 2 vols. [New York, 1805], ii, 52n.).

TJ continued to think about Banneker. He might have first viewed Banneker’s accomplishments as evidence of natural intellectual equality of blacks, but the absence of sufficient additional evidence and a later incorrect suspicion that Banneker had not worked independently led TJ to disparage Banneker’s achievements (TJ to Condorcet, 30 Aug. 1791; TJ to Henri-Baptiste Grégoire, 25 Feb. 1809; and TJ to Joel Barlow, 8 Oct. 1809; Bedini, Banneker, p. 202–34; and Richard B. Davis, ed., Jeffersonian America: Notes on the United States of America Collected in the Years 1805–6–7 and 11–12 by Sir Augustus John Foster, Bart. [San Marino, Cal., 1954], p. 148–9). Nor can there be much doubt that he experienced increasing difficulty in reconciling his ownership of slaves with his libertarian political principles. Thus TJ was an early exemplar of the classic American dilemma of whether the equalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence were intended to apply to all members of American society or to whites only (see Jordan, White over Black, p. 429–81; David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 [New York, 1975], p. 169–84; and John C. Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery [New York, 1977], p. 3–103, for analyses of TJ’s racial attitudes).

1. Preceding thirteen words are missing from FC.

2. This note is not in FC.

3. The second postscript is not in FC.

Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
America Will Be

Understanding Primary Sources:
Benjamin Banneker's Letter to Thomas Jefferson

Objective: Students read and analyze excerpts from a letter from scientist Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson challenging Jefferson's view of African Americans. Students will write letters on the subject in their own words.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
2-4 hours over 2-3 days

Building Background:
Remind students that in the late 1700s and early 1800s, about one-eighth of all African Americans in the United States were free. These free African Americans lived both in northern cities and in the upper South. They worked in a variety of occupations: sailors, shoemakers, porters, laborers, house servants, mechanics. One of the most successful free African Americans of that time period was Benjamin Banneker, a surveyor, an astronomer, and weather predictor. In 1791, Benjamin Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who was then the Secretary of State, making a forceful and powerful argument against slavery. Tell students they will read excerpts from this letter and identify the ways in which Banneker developed his argument and challenged Jefferson to live up to his stated beliefs.

What To Do:

1. Distribute copies of the Excerpts from a Letter from Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson and the What Did He Say? worksheet to each student. You can also find the original text, with images, at this Internet site:

Benjamin Banneker to the secretary of state
The complete text of the letter is available online from the University of Virginia, as well as images of the original handwritten letter.
http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/readex/24073.html

2. Read the excerpts from the letter aloud, stopping often to review any words or expressions that students do not understand. Then have students reread the excerpts and answer the questions in the worksheet.

3. Review and discuss students' answers to the worksheet questions. Ask students to suggest modern equivalents to the words and phrases Banneker used.

4. Using the excerpts from Banneker's letter as a guide, have students write their own letters to Thomas Jefferson. Have them restate in their own words Banneker's arguments against slavery and for equality for African Americans. When finished, have students read their letters aloud. Encourage the class to discuss students' choices of words and phrases.

5. Send students to the library to learn more about Benjamin Banneker's life and work. Possible sources include encyclopedias and biographies. "Dear Benjamin Banneker" by Andrea Davis Pinkey has information about Benjamin Banneker, as well as excerpts of the letter. If you have access to the Internet, you can check out this site for more information:

Benjamin Banneker: Mathematician, Astronomer
(https://webfiles.uci.edu/mcbrown/display/banneker.html)
This site provides a short biography of Banneker as well as extensive bibliographic sources.

6. Have students write a short paragraph describing Banneker's life and work.

Wrap-Up:
Discuss with students the main ideas in Banneker's letter to Jefferson. Then ask students to list Banneker's accomplishments.

Extension:

  • Have students analyze Thomas Jefferson's short reply to Benjamin Banneker's letter. (It is available on the Internet at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/readex/24073.html) Does Jefferson respond to Banneker's argument? What is the tone of the response? Discuss.

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