Astronomer and almanac author Benjamin Banneker (pictured), who was largely self-educated, rose in prominence in the 18th century via his written works and the accuracy he displayed in predicting solar and lunar eclipses. However, it was Banneker’s challenge, by way of written correspondence, to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson on the act of slavery that would also add to his legacy. Banneker’s letter was penned on this day in 1791.
While Banneker was born to free parents, the specter of slavery loomed. Taught briefly as a child by Quakers, who decried the practice of slavery, their ideals remained with Banneker as he became an adult. After befriending fellow astronomer and mathematician George Ellicot in Maryland, Banneker joined Major Andrew Ellicot in surveying what is now the Nation’s Capital in 1791.
That year, Banneker’s confidence grew as he became entrenched with the Washington political elite. This ease of access allowed him to address matters important to him, which he also did in his almanac volumes in later times. Sending a letter that challenged Secretary Jefferson and the unfair nature of slavery, Banneker’s bold step could have been a costly move during the time.
From the letter:
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.
Banneker’s eloquent and lengthy letter was measurably restrained, showing deference to Jefferson’s position but also carefully noting that slavery has been a harmful and divisive practice.
While Banneker hoped to play on Jefferson’s reported and alleged fondness of slaves and their positive well-being, Banneker’s words would fail to resonant; Jefferson believed fully in the racial and intellectual superiority of Whites over Blacks.
Three years after his death in 1806, Jefferson offered some harsh criticism of Banneker to poet and politician Joel Barlow in a letter, although he once praised the man for his personal achievements. Jefferson said to Barlow that he thought Banneker was a man of “common stature” and referenced the 1791 letter. Jefferson also suspected that Banneker was assisted by one of the Ellicots in his writing and life’s work.
Although researchers have long affirmed that Banneker had no help in writing the letter, Jefferson’s disdainful opinion could have been nothing more than a ruse as it had been long discussed that he fathered six children with slave Sally Hemings.
Perhaps to save face and steer clear of controversy, Jefferson publicly discredited Banneker and his work.