One was a reclusive farmer, son of a freed slave, grandson of an African prince, a self-taught man of extraordinary scientific talent at a time when intellectual pursuits were neither expected nor often tolerated in African-Americans.
The other was secretary of state of the young American republic, author of the Declaration of Independence and other profound writings on human liberty -- and at the same time a Virginia planter and owner of slaves.
As Benjamin Banneker sat down one day in August 1791 on his farm at Oella, Baltimore County, to write to Thomas Jefferson, it would have been hard to imagine two men more distant from one another in status and power.
But they shared an interest in astronomy, and both were by nature tinkerers. At the age of 21, after examining a pocket watch, Banneker calculated gear ratios and constructed a wooden clock that would run for 40 years. Visitors to Monticello are still greeted by Jefferson's curious calendar-clock, which tells time and day with a mechanism powered by dropping weights.
Taking advantage of this sole connection, Banneker, then 59, engaged the famous man, 12 years younger, on the subject of slavery.
Earlier the same year, when Banneker was hired to help survey the District of Columbia, a local newspaper had taken a swipe at Jefferson's low opinion of black Americans' intelligence, expressed a decade earlier in "Notes on the State of Virginia." The Georgetown Weekly Ledger said Banneker was "an Ethiopian [i.e. person of African ancestry] whose abilities as a surveyor and astronomer already prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that that race of men were void of mental endowment was without foundation."
Against that background, Banneker began deferentially, but specifically referring to race and racism:
Maryland, Baltimore County, August 19, 1791
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.
Banneker says he has heard Jefferson is more open-minded than many whites. He expresses hope that Jefferson will welcome the refutation of the "absurd and false ideas" whites held of blacks.
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 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.
Now Banneker takes a bold turn, drawing a parallel between black slaves oppressed by white masters and American colonists oppressed by an English king. He throws Jefferson's most famous sentence back at him, and accuses him of a moral crime:
Sir, suffer me to recall to your mind that time, in which the arms and tyranny of the British crown were exerted, with every powerful effort, in order to reduce you to a state of servitude: look back, I entreat you, on the variety of dangers to which you were exposed; reflect on that time, in which every human aid appeared unavailable. ...
This, Sir, was a time when you clearly saw into the injustice of a state of slavery, and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition. It was now that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, 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 they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
... 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.
Here Banneker says apologetically that his attack on slavery had been a spontaneous aside, and that he had originally planned merely to send Jefferson a copy of his just-completed "Almanac," containing calculations of the paths of heavenly bodies and the times of lunar and solar eclipses.
This calculation is the production of my arduous study, in this advanced stage of life; for having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the secrets of my nature, I have had to gratify my curiosity herein, through my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study, in which I need not recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages, which I have had to encounter. ...
I industriously applied myself [to the calculations], which I hope I have accomplished with correctness and accuracy; a copy of which I have taken the liberty to direct to you, and which I humbly request you will favorably receive; and although you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its publication, yet I choose to send it to you in manuscript previous thereto, that thereby you might not only have an earlier inspection, but that you might also view it in my own hand writing.
And now, Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with the most profound respect,
Your most obedient humble servant,
Jefferson replied promptly and politely -- but ambiguously on the subject of slavery:
Philadelphia, August 30, 1791
I thank you, sincerely, for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. Nobody 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, is owing merely to the degrading condition of their existence, both in Africa and America.
I can add with truth, that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.
I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac [to the Academy of Sciences in Paris] because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.
I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble Servant,
Politician-style, Jefferson seems to agree with Banneker while not committing to free his slaves or change his opinions. Yet after Banneker published the exchange of letters in a pamphlet the next year, Jefferson may have regretted even this modest reply.
When he ran for president, critics pointed out the inconsistency between "Notes on the State of Virginia" and the letter to Banneker. One congressman wrote a race-baiting attack: "What shall we think of a secretary of state thus fraternizing with negroes, writing them complimentary epistles, congratulating them on the evidence of their genius, and assuring them of his good wishes for their speedy emancipation?"
Whether because of Banneker's accusations of a "criminal act" or because his letter was exploited politically, Jefferson 18 years later wrote dismissively of the man and his remarkable letter.
Replying to a poet on the subject of black people's talents, Jefferson wrote: "I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed."
Pub Date: 2/28/99