A Letter to Thomas Jefferson Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions . . . and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath . . . endowed us all with the same faculties.”

Summary Overview

Written in 1791, Benjamin Banneker’s letter to Thomas Jefferson appealed to the then secretary of state and author of the Declaration of Independence to recognize the same natural rights to liberty that African Americans shared with the white citizens of a recently independent United States of America. A free black resident of Baltimore County, Maryland, Banneker was the most accomplished African American scientist, inventor, and thinker of his day. He helped survey the new District of Columbia and published a series of astronomically calculated almanacs. Despite his own successes, Banneker was aware of the extreme difficulties that enslaved African Americans faced in the United States and, in his letter, sought to hasten the end of that institution by persuading Jefferson—who opposed slavery in theory despite being a slaveholder—of the equality among people of all races, with himself as an example of the capabilities of those of African descent.

Defining Moment

The existence of slavery was both integral to the growth of parts of the colonial United States and an abusive system from the start. Enslaved Africans had provided necessary skills and labor to the agricultural economies of southern colonies including Virginia and South Carolina as early as the seventeenth century. As they became more dependent on enslaved labor, however, colonies increasingly denied even basic civil rights to African Americans. Colonial leaders justified the repressions of slavery on a number of moral, religious, social, and racial grounds. Many white colonists believed that Africans lacked the same intellectual or emotional capacity as Caucasians. Others pointed to the lack of Christianity in Africa as sufficient reason to enslave its people.

During the mid-eighteenth century, an apparent disconnect emerged between the ideals of white colonial leaders and actual colonial practices. Patriot agitators for independence, including Declaration of Independence author Jefferson, began to speak of the natural rights of man—those basic civil and political rights afforded to all people—as the basis for the call for American independence from Great Britain. At the same time, Jefferson and other famed independence leaders, including George Washington and “Father of the Constitution” James Madison, were plantation owners who controlled an enslaved labor force. Although some of the nation’s founders, including Jefferson, were uneasy about the institution of slavery, most accepted this philosophical hypocrisy.

Unlike most people of African descent in the United States during his time, Banneker was never held in bondage. His lifelong freedom was an exception that afforded him the opportunity to acquire knowledge, own property, and later become a respected scientist and author. At the same time, he could not help but be aware of the grave injustices committed against others held in slavery in his own Maryland and other states dependent on enslaved labor. Although the wide majority of white leaders of the United States—many of them natives of slaveholding Virginia—considered slavery a necessary if unfortunate evil, Banneker showed the thinking of the early abolitionist tide in his letter to Jefferson. By the time of American independence, a divide had emerged between slaveholding southern states, which fervently believed that the institution was vital to their survival, and non-slaveholding northern states. In 1777, Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery. Other northeastern states undertook their own emancipation efforts during the years following independence, but the process was a slow one.

Author Biography

Born the son of two emancipated slaves on a tobacco farm in Baltimore County, Maryland, on November 9, 1731, Banneker had little formal education but learned to read from his white grandmother, a former indentured servant. He used this skill to educate himself, reading extensively and showing an early aptitude for mathematics. This childhood skill translated itself to an adult avocation, and Banneker dabbled in clock making and astronomy alongside his work farming tobacco. After arthritis prevented him from continuing to work on the family farm, Banneker dedicated much of his time to making astronomical observations that allowed him to predict eclipses and other natural phenomena.

In early 1791, Banneker’s skills earned him a position assisting Major Andrew Ellicott in the surveying of the land slated to become the District of Columbia, the planned US capital. Ellicott was a cousin of Banneker’s Quaker neighbors, who had encouraged Banneker in his astronomical studies. During the next several months, Banneker collected astronomical data over the site of the District of Columbia that was used to calculate latitude and calibrate an astronomical clock. These observations contributed to the writing of Banneker’s first astronomical almanac, which was published in Baltimore and Philadelphia in 1791. Banneker’s almanac was a great success that even managed to outsell the one written by his former surveying supervisor Ellicott.

Banneker’s scientific work also became a perhaps unlikely basis for a series of efforts toward the abolition of slavery. Banneker wrote a letter to Jefferson urging abolition and arguing for equality for the races that included a copy of the almanac’s manuscript as a sign of the validity of his intellectual argument. Published with an editorial preface asserting that the almanac was the work of a black man and thus proof that people of African descent shared equal mental gifts with white thinkers, the work received a sufficient favorable response from readers to show that at least some white Americans were willing to accept black Americans as intellectual peers. Maryland senator James McHenry wrote an introduction to Banneker’s almanac, refuting claims that Banneker was not the true author of the work. With his authorship thus affirmed, Banneker’s fame grew, and he wrote editions specific to various parts of the mid-Atlantic region over the next several years. Although no more almanacs were published after 1797, Banneker continued to perform astronomical calculation for his own use until about 1804. He died from a sudden illness in 1806; his hopes for the end of slavery in the United States went unfulfilled for nearly sixty more years.

Document Analysis

Banneker’s letter to Jefferson came at a time of revolutionary change in the government and spirit of the United States. The nation had formally gained independence less than a decade previously, and Jefferson served as secretary of state of the first executive government formed under the new US Constitution. However, the advances in liberty for the former British colonists had largely left the new nation’s black population behind. In his letter, Banneker seeks to urge Jefferson, one of the leading voices for liberty of the American Revolution, to take up the banner of natural rights on the behalf of the nation’s enslaved population. Believing Jefferson to be capable of being convinced of the equality of the races and the fitness of emancipation, Banneker echoes the language of Jefferson’s own Declaration of Independence in support of his argument and provides a copy of his own scientifically research and written astronomical almanac as proof of the intellectual powers of those of African descent. By challenging Jefferson to be the liberal-minded, equality-driven man that his principles suggested he should be, Banneker hoped to convince Jefferson to speed liberty for those in bondage.

In the opening of his letter, Banneker freely acknowledges the boldness of his action in writing to Jefferson. Jefferson was a powerful politician serving in high federal office; Banneker was a freeman of mixed African and white descent who owned a Maryland farm and had served for just months as a poorly paid assistant in a federal surveying project. As a member of Virginia’s planter elite, Jefferson had political and social power. In contrast, Banneker, despite also being a Southern landowner, was subject to an “almost general prejudice” because of his race. In his letter, Banneker lists some of the main biases that white society held against black Americans, including the belief that people of African descent were of low intelligence, closer to animals than humans. Although Banneker had never been a slave and had, in fact, enjoyed opportunities well beyond those typically available even to free black Americans, he was obviously keenly aware of the pressures of racism and slavery on all members of his race.

With this pitiful situation duly enumerated, Banneker appeals to Jefferson as a man who was above such common misconceptions, despite the fact that Jefferson had not truly shown himself to be so. He goes on to explain why he chose Jefferson as the recipient of his letter, stating that he was reaching out to the statesman as a man whom he believed “in consequence of that report which hath reached me” to be “far less inflexible” on the question of the equality of slavery. Although Banneker does not specifically note which “report” had led him to draw this conclusion, one likely possibility is Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, a brief book published in the United States in 1787 that relays the author’s description of the land, climate, people, and society of his native state. Jefferson had long been considered to hold antislavery sentiments—although he had largely been silent on the question since independence—and in Notes on the State of Virginia he decries slavery as a “great political and moral evil”; furthermore, he expresses support for the idea of gradual abolition. Armed with this knowledge, Banneker asks Jefferson to join him in overcoming popular ideas about the mental and emotional inferiority of black Americans. Surely, Banneker suggests, a man of Jefferson’s beliefs would agree with him that God had granted all men “the same sensations and . . . the same faculties.” Naturally, it followed that all people were “of the same family.”

Jefferson, however, had previously expressed exactly the opposite sentiment: that those of African blood were naturally intellectually limited. Writing in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson sets forth his views on the capabilities of African Americans in less-than-flattering terms. Although Jefferson acknowledges that black and white people share similar abilities in terms of memory, he argues that African Americans were far behind white Americans in terms of reason and imagination, commenting specifically that he knows of no black person who can understand the mathematical ideas of Euclid and that Africans lack skills in painting, sculpture, and literature. Jefferson further concludes that Africans’ lack of development in these areas stem from their race and not from their status as slaves because of the intellectual and artistic achievements of Roman-era slaves, whom he believes were held in worse conditions than American slaves. That the conditions and societies of Roman slaves held by emperors and scholars and those of American slaves owned by planters were incomparably different did not strike Jefferson, although none of his Roman examples were agricultural slaves who labored on ancient latifundia.

Thus, Jefferson determines that black persons are inherently inferior to their white counterparts; he qualifies this statement later in the work, however, and proclaims his desire to be convinced otherwise by the accomplishments of some person of African descent; no one had yet achieved this goal in Jefferson’s eyes by the time of Banneker’s letter. He dismissed the works of African American poet Phyllis Wheatley, for example, as being simply the result of religion rather than literary merit, despite Wheatley’s efforts to translate Roman poet Ovid and to produce poems with nationalistic and other themes. In writing to Jefferson, Banneker hoped that his work on the almanac could serve as the definitive proof that the statesman desired to at last accept black intellectual equality. Banneker’s accomplishments—scientific and rational in nature, like those pursued by Jefferson himself—were compatible with the other man’s interests and thus, Banneker presumably hoped, of the correct type to appeal to Jefferson. Time proved Banneker wrong in this regard; Jefferson apparently remained unconvinced of black intellectual equality until the time of his death and declared himself less than impressed by Banneker’s own achievements.

Nevertheless, Banneker was willing to address the potentially persuadable Jefferson rather than the conclusively convinced one, believing that Jefferson’s writings on the manner suggested that he was truly willing to be persuaded of African American equality with sufficient proof. Banneker had another personal indication of Jefferson’s willingness to challenge racial boundaries, as the statesman had been the one to approve Banneker’s appointment to the surveying crew in Washington, DC. Perhaps Banneker reasoned that a man willing to allow him a position on a project as important as the surveying of the nation’s capital would also be willing to consider him a man capable of true intellectual accomplishment. In writing to Jefferson, Banneker challenged him to be as good a man as Banneker presented him to be: open-minded, enlightened, and willing to challenge society to protect liberty.

Banneker next calls on Jefferson to rally behind the cause of liberty for all people—in other words, abolition. He presents the idea as an inevitable conclusion from what he claims are his and Jefferson’s common belief in the equality of people of all races and shared membership in the family of humanity under God; “if these are sentiments of which you are fully persuaded,” he writes, then surely Jefferson would agree that it was his “indispensable duty” to support freedom for enslaved people as fellow members of the human race. Banneker also recalls Jefferson’s avowed support for the philosophy of natural rights, a doctrine clearly at odds with the institution of slavery. If humans were guaranteed certain basic liberties that no government could strip away, then reason—what Banneker calls “a full conviction of the truth and obligation of these principles should all lead to”—dictates that governments have no right to approve the holding of a great number of people condemned to have essentially no rights. Writing with a simplicity that belies that sharp criticism of the hypocrisy of the founders’ stated support for individual liberty but practical toleration of and even engagement in the perpetuation of slavery, Banneker notes that he had “long been convinced” that the sincere efforts of Jefferson and other patriots to secure freedoms according to this philosophy naturally extended to all people, regardless of “rank or distinction,” or presumably, race. Banneker further states that he thinks that Jefferson’s beliefs would certainly make him unwilling to accept the trials of slavery and even push him to actively work for its abolition.

To support these claims, Banneker compares the effects of the “tyranny of the British” on the colonial patriots to the bonds of servitude placed on black Americans, a comparison that the colonists themselves had made during the period of British rule. Banneker exhorts Jefferson to remember the challenges and at times seeming fruitlessness of that era in an effort to encourage the statesman to empathize with the plight of those presently in the country who lack the liberty he and his fellow patriots had so dearly craved, pointing out that “this . . . 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 conditions.” The comparison Banneker wished to draw was clear: just as colonists dreaded being politically enslaved by the British crown, African Americans dreaded being physically enslaved by the American planter class.

Banneker bravely scolds Jefferson for the betrayal of these ideals of liberty that the former patriots set upon the nation’s black residents. To further emphasize his point, Banneker repeats some of Jefferson’s own words regarding natural rights from the Declaration of Independence, forcibly reminding Jefferson that in 1776, he had stated that it was “self-evident, that all men are created equal [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Banneker uses this phrase as a proof that when impressed upon by an outside force, Jefferson and the patriots had recognized the violations of their own natural rights by the British government. Then, Banneker scathingly turns on Jefferson, accusing him of hypocrisy, albeit in polite terms. The patriots were concerned with the “equal and impartial distribution of . . . rights” when their own liberties were at stake, he argues, but once they had received them, they allowed African Americans to continue to exist “under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.” In this brief letter, Banneker elucidates a philosophical paradox that continues to baffle historians today: How could men committed to liberty for all so clearly reject freedom for many of their countrymen? Although Banneker calls the situation “pitiable” in his letter to Jefferson, his language suggests that his feelings about the division between ideal and action was much more condemnatory.

Banneker also calls to Jefferson’s mind the freedoms that both of them shared. Stating his pride in his own African heritage, the author nevertheless admits that he had the “most profound gratitude” to God that he had been fortunate enough to avoid being enslaved but had instead enjoyed the fruits of “that free and unequalled liberty” that Jefferson himself had striven to attain. In contrast to this, Banneker comments that Jefferson, a slave owner, had more than sufficient knowledge of the situation of enslaved Americans to need a reminder from him, a free man who had never known slavery intimately. Instead, Banneker presents a solution to the problem of slavery plaguing the nation. White political leaders, including Jefferson, must eliminate their racist and prejudiced beliefs and, as it were, walk a mile in the slave’s shoes. The path to abolition would then be clear to them without any guidance.

With this call to liberty made, the latter section of Banneker’s letter is dedicated to the offering of the manuscript of his first almanac. The author introduces the item after a declaration of modesty, seeking forgiveness for the extent to which “my sympathy and affection for my brethren” has driven him to talk up his own ideas about racial equality and abolition. It was this great rush of feeling that has distracted him from his original purpose, he claims, of presenting Jefferson a copy of his almanac. Unspoken in the letter, but certainly implied through the connection of topics, is Banneker’s belief that his work represents the proof that Jefferson had claimed to desire of the intellectual capabilities of African Americans, for no other reason fully justifies Banneker’s decision to send a copy to the statesman. Indeed, although Banneker does not state this purpose, Jefferson certainly recognized it; in his response to Banneker, he comments specifically on the ability of such a work to provide proof of potential black intellectualism.

Banneker offers the item with no such claim, however, suggesting another, more straightforward reason for the gift. He explains to Jefferson the circumstances of the taking of the astronomical calculations while part of Ellicott’s party in the District of Columbia, a nod to Jefferson’s role in the federal government and in Banneker’s own appointment. However, the commentary around the production and sending of the manuscript points back to the idea of showing Banneker’s, and thus all African Americans’, mental fitness and vocational dedication.

The manuscript was highly desired by multiple publishers in Maryland, implying that a work of science by an African American could enjoy high demand by people of all races. Banneker notes that he accomplished the feat of completing the manuscript in a time period shortened by his work with Ellicott’s party, a subtle denial of Jefferson’s earlier supposition that African Americans were inherently lazy and not made so by the brutality of their enslavement. To that end, Banneker also refers to his “assiduous application to Astronomical Study,” a refutation of the notion that black persons were unable or uninterested in advanced scientific exploration. Further, Banneker notes that he accomplished all of these things at the age of sixty, more than a decade older than Jefferson. In a final stroke, Banneker sent a handwritten manuscript to Jefferson. By doing this, Banneker sought both to prove his authorship and to challenge ideas about black literacy at a time when some thought African Americans were unable to learn to read or write properly.

Thus, although Banneker’s presentation of the almanac was his stated purpose for daring to write to Jefferson, the bulk of his letter makes clear his true goal in the communication: to persuade the statesman to establish himself as a devout opponent of slavery willing to call for African Americans to achieve liberty, just as he had been a powerful voice for colonial freedom fifteen years earlier. Although Jefferson did not immediately set about doing just this, Banneker had reason to believe that his message had not gone unheard. Shortly after receiving Banneker’s letter, Jefferson wrote him a polite response in which he declared his own desire to see African Americans prove their intellectual equality with whites, and that he hoped to see a “good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be.” Jefferson also specifically praised the Banneker’s almanac manuscript, stating that he sent it on to the secretary of the French Academy of Sciences as an example of the abilities of black men. The eruption of the French Revolution prevented any correspondence between Banneker and the secretary, but the gesture nevertheless seemed a positive one. Jefferson, however, remained conflicted over race and slavery for the rest of his life, despite the arguments and proofs that Banneker sought to set forth in his 1791 letter.

Essential Themes

Banneker’s message throughout his letter was clear: African Americans were of equal intellectual heft with members of other races, and Jefferson, like all men dedicated to the pursuit of freedom, need only grasp this basic fact of equality to understand the vital importance of liberty for black Americans. However, Banneker failed to truly convince his primary audience of his message. Throughout his life, Jefferson typically showed himself unwilling to actually believe that African Americans had equal mental capabilities to white persons, and this instance was no exception. Later in life, Jefferson acknowledged that Banneker showed mathematical knowledge but suggested that the scientist would have been unable to produce a work the quality of the almanac without help from fellow almanac writer and former supervisor Andrew Ellicott, whom Jefferson confused with Banneker’s friend and neighbor George Ellicott, a man of no learning in this field. Even more harshly, Jefferson dismissed Banneker’s letter by stating that it “shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.” Thus, Jefferson remained unconvinced not only of the abilities of those of African descent at large but also of Banneker’s own specific capabilities. Historians have speculated that Banneker’s reproachful tone and suggestions of hypocrisy may have turned Jefferson against him, or that the publication of Jefferson’s response in Banneker’s 1793 edition so enraged southerners that it cost the politician the hotly contested 1796 presidential election.

In the long run, however, Banneker’s letter was recognized as an important early argument against the institution of slavery. The question of slavery was widely considered one too hot to handle politically during the years surrounding the formation of the United States. Constitutional compromises protected the survival of slavery and even forbade the discussion of its abolition at the federal level for years to come. The nation’s fragile bonds of unification were considered too new and too weak to survive an enforced abolition of slavery in the agricultural south. However, the first stirrings of the abolitionist movement were emerging both in England and in the United States, and Banneker’s correspondence set forth the movement’s leading arguments against slavery: that black and white people were, inherently, equal and shared the same natural rights. Banneker may have failed to win over Jefferson, but his arguments were echoed by later abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass, and the correspondence between Banneker and Jefferson remained part of the national conversation about slavery for decades to come.

Bibliography
  • Andrews, William. “Benjamin Banneker’s Revision of Thomas Jefferson: Conscience vs. Science in the Early American Antislavery Debate.” Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Ed. Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2001. Print.
  • Appleby, Joyce. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Times, 2003. Print.
  • Bedini, Silvio A. “Benjamin Banneker.” American National Biography. Biography Reference Center, 2010. Web. 11 June 2012.
  • ---. The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1999. Print.
  • Berry, Faith, ed. From Bondage to Liberation: Writing by and about Afro-Americans from 1700 to 1918. New York: Continuum, 2006. Print.
  • Cerami, Charles A. Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot. New York: Wiley, 2002. Print.
  • Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the States of Virginia. 1787. New York: Library of America, 1984. Print.
  • Latrobe, John H. B. Memoir of Benjamin Banneker. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1845. Print.
  • Miller, John Chester. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. New York: Free, 1977. Print.
  • Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: Macrae, 1993. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Berlin, Ira, and Ronald Hoffman, eds. Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1983. Print.
  • Wright, Donald R. African Americans in the Early Republic, 1789–1831. Arlington Heights, IL: Harland Davidson, 1993. Print.

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