In essence, Jefferson realized his own conclusions on the matter were derived in an atmosphere where the black man was already placed in a position of inferiority. Therefore, any expression of talent or brilliance was automatically suppressed, robbing them of every opportunity to excel.
Banneker’s letter was just further evidence to Jefferson that his earlier observations were incorrect. Jefferson quickly responded to Banneker, agreeing with Banneker’s arguments and thanking him for more evidence of the Negro’s equality and ability. Jefferson was so impressed with Banneker’s almanac that he forwarded it on to a friend in France as absolute proof that the belief that those of color are inferior is absolutely false.
“ ‘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.”
Banneker did not hold back, first applauding Jefferson for standing up to the slavery the British enforced on him (see ), but rebuking him for not imparting that right to the Negros. (Read his full letter ) Remarkably, even after sternly challenging Jefferson in a lengthy letter, in proper Christian fashion Banneker honestly and respectfully signed it “Your most obedient humble servant.”
Years before, France’s Henri Gregoire confronted Jefferson’s early statements on the Negro’s intellectual capacity, providing several examples disproving Jefferson’s misconceptions. Jefferson replied to Gregoire, admitting:
“Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so."
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.
November 16, 2017
“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote these words to his nephew in a letter dated August 10, 1787. So when Benjamin Banneker put them in action, questioning Jefferson’s own words against his actions, Jefferson allowed reason to correct his own inconsistencies.
Born in the same decade as George Washington and John Adams, Banneker was a rarity at the time of his birth. In the late 1600s, Molly Welsh was a peasant girl in England. Accused of stealing milk, she was spared the normal death sentence and sent to the New World instead as an indentured servant (see ). After serving her seven years, she acquired her freedom and began her own farm. Needing help, she purchased two slaves. One, named Banna Ka, was a supposed son of a African king before being captured and enslaved. Molly freed her two slaves before marrying Banna Ka, which was illegal at the time. The couple produced four daughters, including Mary.
Mary also married a former slave. Robert, as he was baptized, had bought his own freedom. Not having his own last name, Robert adopted his wife’s surname, which had evolved from Banna Ka to Bannaky to Banneker. Their only son, Benjamin, was born November 9, 1731, in Maryland as one of very few free Negros at the time.
While Banneker received some education in a one-room schoolhouse run by Quakers, the majority of his learning started with Grandma Molly, developing into his own intense self-education. Molly taught her grandchildren to read and write using her Bible. Before long, Bannaker was spending his evenings reading the Bible to the family. Fascinated with mathematics and science, his own self-study quickly excelled his knowledge of the subjects.
At age 20, Banneker won widespread local fame after designing and producing a clock. Having only seen a pocket watch, Banneker carved a fully functioning clock, including the mechanisms, out of wood. The clock faithfully struck every hour without fail for over 50 years.
When his father passed, 28-year-old Banneker took the reins of the family farm, providing for his mother and sisters. Banneker thoroughly enjoyed raising cattle while farming tobacco and attending beehives. An avid reader, he didn’t purchase his own book until January 4, 1763, the date he inscribed in his brand new Bible.
In the 1770s, the Pennsylvanian Quaker Ellicott family migrated into the Baltimore area and began constructing mills. The mechanical and engineering methods in their grist mills captivated Banneker. He soon became close friends with the Ellicotts, and one of the sons, George, lent him several books on natural science and math as well as a number of astronomical instruments. Drinking in all he could, Banneker used his new knowledge to develop his skills as a surveyor and astronomer. With astounding accuracy, Banneker began calculating celestial and planetary events, including times of solar and lunar eclipses. In 1790, he developed an ephemeris, or astronomical almanac containing dates and positions of heavenly bodies. Even though he did not get it published, many prominent abolitionists in Maryland and Pennsylvania took notice.
Well aquatinted with his brilliance, another Ellicott family member turned to Banneker when he needed a trusted, reliable associate for a very important job. In 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott hired Banneker to assist in surveying the new national capital. Unfortunately, a sudden illness forced Banneker to resign from the assignment just weeks after its start. Legend records that following French architect Pierre L’Enfant’s stormy departure with all the maps, Banneker recreated the entire city diagram by memory. However, Banneker left in 1791 while L’Enfant fumed off in 1792, making the astounding event improbable.
Back at home, Banneker returned to astronomy, writing another almanac. Now a part of the abolitionist movement, Banneker decided to use his work to confront the brand new country’s leaders in their commitment to freedom and liberty. Instead of taking his almanac to a publisher, Banneker decided to send it to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson with a very thoughtful and gracious letter that boldly confronted Jefferson’s views of Negros.
Beginning at a point of agreement, Banneker commended Jefferson’s recognition of human rights coming from our Creator. He also understood their desire to be free of Britain’s bondage. (see and ) After laying this common groundwork, Banneker then questioned Jefferson on how the leaders could not then extend this understanding to the Negro slave, even referring to and quoting the .
Banneker wrote six almanacs in the 1790s of which were highly acclaimed, earning him the nickname the “Sable Astronomer”. Towards the end of his life, Banneker sold off much of his land, eventually trading what was left to the Ellicotts for a monthly allowance. He only kept a small parcel containing his home. He never married, and passed away at his home on October 9, 1806, just shy of his 75th birthday.
While family and friends gathered at his gravesite two days later, saying their last goodbyes, Banneker’s small home caught on fire just yards away. They watched as flames destroyed the majority of his work, including the clock he had made 50 years earlier. A few items had already been removed immediately following his death, per Banneker’s instructions, including returning the borrowed books and instruments to the Ellicotts. Among those items was Banneker’s astronomical journal. It is the only handwritten work of his to survive. Fortunately, the letters between Banneker and Jefferson had been published on November 16, 1796, in the Gazette of the United States & Philadelphia Daily Advisor as well as in one of Banneker’s almanacs.
Liberty, today’s society is trying to demand civil rights while also insisting that science has proven we evolved, removing God from the equation. (see and ) As Banneker’s letter to Jefferson demonstrates, these two beliefs don’t equal up without God. Even Christians 200 years ago used evolution to argue that Negros were not as evolved as the white man to justify their own sin. But as Banneker rightfully maintained, every human was created by God, inheriting certain inalienable rights as a birthright. (see ) If you want to contend that all humans are equal, then you have to insist it’s because they were created equal. (see ) Charles Darwin claimed the different races developed because they evolved from separate evolutionary lines, supporting the argument that one race did not evolve as quickly or as high as another. As a result, evolution promotes racism and inequality, and therefore justifies slavery. (see ) However, Banneker, a devout Christian, correctly demonstrates that if you want to end slavery and injustice, promoting equality and inalienable rights, that discussion is only possible on a foundation “that all men are created equal.” All other ground is sinking sand.
It boggles the mind that while so many are crying for justice and equality, they forcefully reject the only path on which to obtain both - God and His Word. Thank goodness, Banneker figured it out and wasn’t afraid to question Jefferson with boldness. Therefore go, Liberty, and do likewise.
That’s my 2 cents.
QUESTION WITH BOLDNESS