top of page

An Enlightening Letter to Thomas Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and a writer of the Declaration of Independence, was the image of a true patriot. He valued human rights and stressed that all human beings deserve to live in a free, equal, and just environment. However, these ideas were limited to a portion of American society: the white citizens. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson claimed that Black people are intellectually inferior, and their genetics are completely different from white people (1781). His racist ideas had no solid proof, as Black people were torn from the opportunities that were provided to white people. Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught astronomer and mathematician and free African-American, wanted to change Thomas Jefferson’s mind and wrote him a letter. In this letter, Banneker talked about equality, liberty, and the oppression of Black people, and used his education to prove his mindset, which Jefferson considered deficient. Banneker lived during a period of slavery and racial discrimination, and his achievements are a testament to his intelligence, perseverance, and dedication to learning (Baker, 1918).


Benjamin Banneker was born on a farm near the Patapsco River on November 9, 1731, about ten miles from Baltimore, Maryland, in what is now Ellicott City. His mother was a free woman and his father was an enslaved person. His maternal grandmother was a white Englishwoman who was legally married to the son of an African king (Mulcrone, 1976). The White House Historical Association describes Benjamin Banneker as a self-taught mathematician who learned mathematics by studying books borrowed from his neighbor. He is known for his work surveying and mapping the District of Columbia, which was then known as the Federal City, and for publishing almanacs that contained astronomical calculations, tide tables, and other useful information (Mulcrone, 1976). As a self-taught mathematician and astronomer who made significant contributions to the fields of science and mathematics (Baker, 1918), in 1791, Benjamin Banneker submitted his almanac to Thomas Jefferson, who was then the Secretary of State. Banneker included his twelve-page letter with the almanac, wisely using religious ideas to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions” that Jefferson stated in his Notes on the State of Virginia (Banneker, 1791). Banneker suggests:

“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 endued 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” (Banneker, 1791).

Figure 1: "Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer," mural by Maxime Seelbinder, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C.


Banneker's message can be interpreted as a call to recognize the fundamental equality and dignity of all individuals regardless of their external differences. He appeals to the idea that we should treat each other with fairness, respect, and empathy, acknowledging our shared humanity and the common bond uniting us. Although the presence of various races and ethnicities makes humankind look very different, they are actually very similar. He emphasizes the existence of one God by relying on the unifying force of Christianity, which is a notion Jefferson valued. On the one hand, Banneker accepts Jefferson's superiority in their hierarchical relationship, which is evident in his sentences addressing Jefferson as “Sir." On the other hand, Banneker insists that he and Jefferson are mentally and physically equal (Ray, 1998). Banneker invokes one of Jefferson's own fundamental Enlightenment notions, the idea that God made all men equal—an ideal that inextricably linked political liberty and religious faith in a democracy. After Banneker indicates the “part of the one” notion of Christianity, he reminds Jefferson that it is the responsibility of Christianity and basic human rights to end the sufferings of the oppressed:

“Sir, if these are Sentiments of which you are fully persuaded, I hope you cannot but acknowledge, that it is the indispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who profess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burthen or oppression they may unjustly labor under, and this I apprehend a full conviction of the truth and obligation of these principles should lead all to”(Banneker, 1791).

Banneker wants to convince Jefferson by addressing his principal spiritual and religious values and assuming that he would help him to grasp a more humanistic and collective approach by stating that anyone who is well-aware of Christianity's teachings needs to take action to help the disadvantaged. Banneker implies that it is Jefferson's responsibility to utilize the necessary resources to end the sufferings of the oppressed.


Banneker reminds Jefferson of the “times in which the Arms and tyranny of the British Crown were exerted with every powerful effort in order to reduce them to a State of Servitude” by referring to the sovereignty of the British over America, but the striking thing here is Banneker using the word servitude (Banneker, 1791). He, as a free Black person who wants Jefferson to empathize with him; he means that before the U.S. gained its independence, they were “enslaved” by the British. The very same freedom war against tyranny was fought. Banneker tries to make Jefferson accept that he was one of the oppressed people some while ago and now he is the oppressor who has irrational ideas about the Black race. Banneker thinks that the oppression that Black people and Americans under British tyranny have experienced are the same. Therefore, Jefferson, as an individual who fought for his and the nation’s independence, should also fight for Black people's rights. Another weapon Banneker uses against Jefferson is “Jefferson’s own words”. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence became the way of salvation for American society. The Declaration stated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (U.S. 1776). Because Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Banneker stresses Jefferson’s ideas “which is worthy to be recorded and remember’d in all Succeeding ages” (Banneker, 1791). Banneker asserts that he shares this vision with the author of the Declaration of Independence (Ray, 1998) and allegorically awakens his memories about the injustice that Jefferson himself should remember (Banneker, 1791). Benjamin Banneker sees the contradiction between the oppression of Black people and expressions of equality in the Declaration of Independence and written by Thomas Jefferson. Thus, his purpose is to show this problem to Jefferson whose understanding of equality is limited to white people.


Figure 2: Benjamin Banneker and his own creation, Almanac

In his letter, Banneker uses his intellect and achievements as a counterargument to Jefferson’s prejudiced ideas about Black people’s inferiority. Banneker wants to show Jefferson that if Black people are given the same opportunity as white people, they can achieve the same levels of success. He introduces his Almanac:

“This calculation, Sir, is the production of my arduous Study in this my advanced Stage of life; for having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the Secrets of nature, I have had to gratify my curiosity herein thro my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study, in which I need not to recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages which I have had to encounter”(Banneker, 1791).

He emphasizes that working out the calculations in the almanac is challenging, thereby demonstrating that he has managed an extremely difficult job on his own. He wants Jefferson to know that he faced many difficulties while creating the calendar, demonstrating his problem-solving and reasoning skills as possessed by all healthy human beings. Banneker sends his work to Jefferson as a “present”. However, Jefferson replies to his letter and declares that he is suspicious of Banneker getting aid from another person while calculating the almanac: “We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs but not without the suspicion of aid. I have a long letter from Banneker which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed” (“Benjamin Banneker: America's First Black Astronomer”, 1996, p. 39). Such gift-giving requires a certain amount of freedom, as well as its corollary, self-ownership. One cannot give something one does not possess, therefore a slave cannot "own" anything by definition. The almanac, which Banneker gave as a present, was a visible symbol of his own intellectual abilities and freedom (Ray, 1998). As a self-taught Black scientist, he draws himself as a representative of his race in front of Jefferson in his letter. Banneker stresses that he has written this letter in his own handwriting. His sole desire is to show Black intelligence to Jefferson, as much as he can fit into a letter. Banneker, humbly, concludes his letter by identifying himself as Jefferson’s servant. Banneker must be at ease because he, in his own way, has proved that there is nothing white people possess that Black people do not. He seems to liberate himself from the racist impositions on Black people.


In conclusion, in his letter to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Banneker, a free African-American self-educated scientist and mathematician, opposes Jefferson’s bigoted ideas that he puts forward in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, about Black people being intellectually inferior to white people. Banneker wants Jefferson to see that Black people are not what Jefferson assumes. He is proof of Black intelligence, which Jefferson underestimated and alienated. Banneker shows great courage while writing a letter in which he objects to one of the nation's Founding Fathers. After Banneker’s reputation spread, a well-known magazine, the Georgetown Weekly Ledger, praised Banneker’s abilities by frankly declaring that Jefferson was wrong about his racial assumptions: “[Ellicott] is attended by Benjamin Banneker, an Ethiopian, whose abilities as a surveyor and an astronomer clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson’s concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments was without foundation.” (n.d.)



Bibliography

Baker, H. E. (1918). Benjamin Banneker, the Negro mathematician and astronomer. The Journal of Negro History, 3(2), 99-118.


Banneker, B. (1791). To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Banneker, 19 August 1791. Founders Online.


Benjamin Banneker: America’s First Black Astronomer. (1996). The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 12, 39. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2962965


Mulcrone, T. F. (1976). Benjamin Banneker, Pioneer Negro Mathematician. The Mathematics Teacher, 69(2), 155-160.


Ray, A. G. (1998). " In My Own Hand Writing": Benjamin Banneker Addresses the Slaveholder of Monticello. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1(3), 387-405


White House Historical Association. (n.d.). Benjamin Banneker. WHHA (en-US). https://www.whitehousehistory.org/benjamin-banneker

Visual Sources

Comments


Author Photo

Hazal Kazancı

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia

Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page