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A review of my open letter to president thomas jefferson

To Jared Sparks Monticello, February 4, 1824

Race in US History When the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, the liberties it provided were withheld from the hundreds of thousands of Africans living here in slavery. In this letter, Banneker pointed to the contradictions between the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, and the continued existence of slavery.

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.

A self-taught natural philosopher who became an amateur mathematician and astronomer, Banneker helped to survey the new capital city, the District of Columbia, and published widely-read almanacs. However, his most daring action was to publically challenge Thomas Jefferson on the issue of slavery and racism.

Created Equal: How Benjamin Banneker Challenged Jefferson on Race and Freedom

In 1778, he drafted a law in Virginia that prohibited the future importation of enslaved Africans, and in 1784 he proposed a law that would ban slavery in the growing territories of the Northwest. He hoped that these limits would contribute to gradually phasing away the slave economy. In fact, he personally owned and sold upwards of 700 slaves.

And evidence suggests that Jefferson had a decades-long relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and fathered six children by her. I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of body and mind.

  1. To send off the whole of these at once, nobody conceives to be practicable for us, or expedient for them. He enclosed a copy of the popular astronomical almanac he had authored, and mentioned in passing his employment on the survey of the District of Columbia, adding.
  2. To send off the whole of these at once, nobody conceives to be practicable for us, or expedient for them. To this, add the cost of their transportation by land and sea to Mesurado, a year's provision of food and clothing, implements of husbandry and of their trades, which will amount to three hundred millions more, making thirty-six millions of dollars a year for twenty-five years, with insurance of peace all that time, and it is impossible to look at the question a second time.
  3. This leaves, then, for the general confederacy, no expense but of nurture with the mother a few years, and would call, of course, for a very moderate appropriation of the vacant lands.

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture.

SIR, 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.

But Banneker had carefully thought through why he was the right person to address Jefferson, and why Jefferson was the right leader to whom he should make his plea.

Thomas Jefferson composes romantic letter

He enclosed a copy of the popular astronomical almanac he had authored, and mentioned in passing his employment on the survey of the District of Columbia, adding: 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 thraldom, 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 proceedeth every good and perfect Gift.

He reminded Jefferson of the very language of religious humility that the Secretary himself had used elsewhere—the idea that the blessings of liberty come from a Supreme Being, rather than being doled out by one human being to another.

Banneker hoped to get Jefferson to take that principle further and to accept that the same ideal applied to people of all races. In it, he appears to extend Banneker his good will.

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 colors of men; and that the appearance of the want of them, owes merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America.

  1. For that is neither my opinion nor my hope.
  2. A million and a half are within their control; but six millions, which a majority of those now living will see them attain, and one million of these fighting men, will say, "we will not go. The Maryland Historical Society, 1999.
  3. In fact, he personally owned and sold upwards of 700 slaves.
  4. Voluntary surrenders would probably come in as fast as the means to be provided for their care would be competent to it. To this, add the cost of their transportation by land and sea to Mesurado, a year's provision of food and clothing, implements of husbandry and of their trades, which will amount to three hundred millions more, making thirty-six millions of dollars a year for twenty-five years, with insurance of peace all that time, and it is impossible to look at the question a second time.
  5. By doing this, we may make to them some retribution for the long course of injuries we have been committing on their population.

The engineer had written 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.

It was a question which the future president chose not to debate with the freeman: In 1793, he had the letters between Jefferson and himself printed in his annual almanac.

These periodicals contained not only tables of tides and weather, planetary cycles and astronomical calculations, but also essays and poetry by the African American poet Phillis Wheatley and the English anti-slavery poet William Cowper, and anti-slavery speeches and essays from England and America.

The pamphlets circulated as far as Great Britain, where the famed anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce praised Banneker in the House of Commons.

  • I learn from it more, too, than I had before known, of the degree of success and promise of that colony;
  • There are in the United States a million and a half of people of color in slavery;
  • A million and a half are within their control; but six millions, which a majority of those now living will see them attain, and one million of these fighting men, will say, "we will not go.

The Maryland Historical Society, 1999.