Banneker’s Plea

Good morning. It’s Thursday, August 9, 2018.

On this date in 1791, an aspiring American author was putting the final touches on a book that would introduce him to the world as a man of science — and much more. But the budding writer would need help getting his work into print, and so he sent the manuscript — an almanac, not unlike the popular volumes produced by Benjamin Franklin — to a prominent man of letters whose approval could open many doors.

But Ben Franklin had died the year before and, in any event, it wasn’t Franklin’s imprimatur the new almanac-writer sought — even though they shared a first name. Benjamin Banneker, as it happened, specifically wanted Thomas Jefferson’s approval, and Jefferson’s help. His tone in requesting that assistance was not what one might expect, even today, let alone in the late 18th century. Banneker’s attitude wasn’t that of a supplicant. He wrote as if Secretary of State Jefferson, then ensconced in the new nation’s provisional capital of Philadelphia, owed him something. Moreover, Banneker wrote as if Jefferson would know this to be true.

Guess what? It was true, which Jefferson realized, and acted upon.

Image result for benjamin bannekerBenjamin Banneker was born in 1731 on a farm in Maryland to a couple named Robert and Mary Bannaky. Mary was half-white and half-black, Robert a freed slave. They named their son Benjamin. Somewhere along the line, his surname was altered to Banneker.

However it was spelled, it is a name to be venerated. Benjamin Banneker became a citizen of the new country arising around him, as well as a renowned scientist, a fluid writer, and the quiet conscience of a continent.

In his impassioned 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded Americans how they had fallen short of the “magnificent words” of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Those documents, King said, were promissory notes, to which every American, regardless of color, was a rightful heir. In 1791, at age 60, Benjamin Banneker made the same point — just as eloquently — in a letter to the author of the declaration itself.

“Sir,” his letter to Thomas Jefferson began, “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.”

With that, Banneker is off and running. He notes that blacks’ reputation in the white world is that of a “race of beings… considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.”

He notes that he’s heard Jefferson described as “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.”

So what does he desire from the esteemed Virginia gentleman? Nothing less than Jefferson’s personal help in correcting the prevailing opinion of the intellectual capacity of African slaves and their descendants. Publicizing his almanac is the obvious next step in furtherance of such a goal, he notes, but once Banneker warms to the subject of servitude based on race, his digression is not a short one.

“I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us,” he told Jefferson, “and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, 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.”

Here, Banneker is repeating back to Jefferson — from the African-American perspective — Jefferson’s own synthesis of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence. Evoking powerful language from that famous Preamble (Banneker’s “train of absurd and false ideas” is intended to echo Jefferson’s “long train of abuses and usurpations”), Banneker signals what comes next.

He reminds Jefferson of a time when “the arms and tyranny of the British crown were exerted… in order to reduce you to a state of servitude,” and he goes on to congratulate him and the other Founders for braving the danger inherent in dispensing of that yoke. And yet:

“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,” he wrote. “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,” Banneker continued, “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.”

Jefferson replied the following day:

“Sir, I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th instant and for the Almanac it contained,” wrote the Sage of Monticello. “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 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.”

Jefferson adds that he has forwarded Banneker’s almanac to French Academy of Sciences in Paris, “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.”

He signed off this way: “I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedt. humble servt. Th. Jefferson”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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